O'Neal's consistency helps keep C's afloat

53089.jpg

O'Neal's consistency helps keep C's afloat

By: Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

BOSTON When the Celtics signed Shaquille ONeal last summer, they did so with the expectation that there would be gameshowever few and far betweenlike last Wednesday, when ONeal tallied 25 points and 11 rebounds in a six-point win over the Nets.

Thats vintage Shaq, and it was fair to assume that there would be nights when hed re-surface, dominate the paint and post numbers comparable to his 24 and 11 career averages.

But as the team introduced the 38-year-old ONeal at that August press conference, never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined the player Bostons seen of late.

I didnt know, Doc Rivers said of his initial expectations for ONeal, who notched 16 points and nine rebounds in Fridays win over the Raptors. I honestly didnt know what to expect. Id love to tell you that I did, but I really didnt. I saw him last year, and there were games in Cleveland where he looked pretty good, but also games where he didnt. I didnt know. I knew we were getting size.

But so far this season, Shaqs been so much more. The size is there, of course. With ONeal the size is always there. But what hes brought so surprisingly this season is consistency. Hes been a guy who not only posts the periodically impressive stat line, but also the one who shows up every night, who gives the team quality minutes; hes a center who you can set your ridiculously oversized watch to.

The reason ONeals consistency is so shocking isnt a matter of effort, its a physical thing. At 38 years old, Shaqs body isnt as resilient as it used to be, and after missing a few games this pre-season with a bum hip, and then another five to start the regular season with an injured knee, it looked like it might be a long year for the Big Shamrock. But since returning to the starting line-up on November 11, ONeals reached double figures in six of eight games and has grabbed at least five boards and played at least 20 minutes every night.

Again, these arent press-stopping numbers, but the Celtics are getting them every single night, and considering the injuries and inexperience thats plagued the front line, that nightly contribution is invaluable.

Oh, wed be in trouble, Rivers said when asked where the Cs would be without Shaq this season, with (Jermaine ONeal) out and Semih (Erden) trying to figure things outwe cant forget that hes a rookie too, from another country.

Shaqs played his best ball over Bostons current three-game win streak, during which hes averaging 18 points and 10.3 rebounds a game. But for a man who, over his career, has earned the reputation as one of the least bashful, more bragadocious players in the game, ONeal has been quick to down play his recent success, and defer credit to his teammates.

Its not that Im carrying the load, ONeal said after Fridays win. Im playing with a lot of great guys. Its not all on me. When Paul comes to the hole, you have to pay attention, and Im just getting a lot of easy baskets. At 38, thats kind of how I want it. Im not trying to back down, take 30-40 shots, but when the guys give me my five to six to eight shotsthen I just have to finish. Every time."

But again, for Shaq to finish, he has to be on the court, and to be on the court, he has to be healthyand right now, he feels better than he has in sometime.

I felt good last year, then Big Baby chopped me down, and I had to relax for eight weeks. It was hard to do that. But Im on a mission," ONeal said. Im in shape, I live on a farm, no night life, no messing around. A lot of times when I was younger Id wear myself out with non-basketball activities. Being that I live an hour away from the fun, I just stay home and rest and watch TV.

But regardless of how great he feels, or how well he performs, dont expect Rivers to get carried away extending ONeals minutes. In fact, when the idea was brought up after the game, the coach couldnt have changed the subject any faster.

Im just gonna leave it alone, Rivers said. What happens happens.

But for now, whats happening is that Shaq is bringing his A game every night, and keeping the Celtics center position afloat as Jermaine ONeal and Kendrick Perkins work back from injury, and Semih Erden works on adjusting to life in the NBA. What's happening is that Shaq's focused on bringing another title to Boston. So much so that he's coined a new slogan:

18-25," O'Neal said of his quest for another title. "The city wants 18, Doc and them want 2, and I want 5. Every day when I think about what were trying to do, its 18-25."

Rich Levine can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Pick or trade? Celtics find themselves in similar position to 2014 Cavs

Pick or trade? Celtics find themselves in similar position to 2014 Cavs

BOSTON – Even before the Boston Celtics landed the top overall pick in next month’s NBA draft, there has been talk about Boston potentially trading it away.

While Danny Ainge has made no secret about being open to all options involving the top overall pick, there are a couple of things to remember.

Moving the number one overall pick is not a decision that’s made lightly.

That’s why only twice since the ABA-NBA merge in 1976, has the number one overall pick not played for the team that selected him.

But in looking at the two instances when it did happen, 1993 with Chris Webber (drafted by Orlando, traded to Golden State) and 2014 with Andrew Wiggins (drafted by Cleveland, traded to Minnesota), the Wiggins deal best resembles the kind of situation that the Celtics now find themselves in with the top overall pick in hand.

In 2014, Cleveland wound up with the number one overall pick for the second straight year. In 2013, they shocked many in selecting UNLV’s Anthony Bennett which turned out to be a huge mistake.

But the following year, taking Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas with the top pick was more of a no-brainer.

The Cavs were soon faced with the kind of problem every team would love to have.

Just a couple weeks after the draft, LeBron James announced that he was taking his talents back to Cleveland.

The number one pick and James returning to Cleveland?

Does it get much better than that for a Cavs fan?

As it turned out … yeah. It got a hell of a lot better, actually.

While a James-Wiggins-Kyrie Irving Big Three will probably win you a lot of console championships, in the real world of NBA basketball it wasn’t going to work.

The Cavs knew this, which is why they made no secret about willing to part ways with the top pick (Wiggins) for the right player.

That player was Kevin Love, who had grown tired of all the struggles he endured with the Timberpups who never grew up enough to win enough games to get to the playoffs.  

Minnesota, understanding that they may be better off down the road without Love, decided to move him for a bunch of pieces centered around Wiggins who went on to become the league’s Rookie of the Year.

Cleveland’s motivation for making the deal had a lot to do with being in the best position to compete for a title right now, without having to do major work at the front-end of their rotation.

LeBron James. Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love.

Fill in the rest of the roster with good players who are great fits, and just like that ... you're a title contender. 

Boston finds itself in a similar position to the Cavs in 2014.

Unlike most franchises with the top overall pick, Boston doesn’t need that player to come in and carry the franchise from Day One.

Remember, Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference finals this season with one of the younger teams in the playoffs.

Of the players under contract for next season, Al Horford – he’ll be 31 years old on Saturday – is the oldest player.

So with all that youth still developing their games, still figuring out how best to impact the Celtics, Boston knows they would be much better served if they can convert that top overall pick into a proven, established All-Star that can move them that much closer to title contention sooner rather than later.

That’s why Cleveland was so eager to trade the pick, knowing it would likely return a proven star for a team that at the time felt they were one piece away from being a true title contender.

Boston, which lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals last week, is at least one high-impact performer (I believe two personally) from posing a stronger threat to the Cavs’ dominance than we saw in a conference finals that Cleveland ended in five games.

There are a few big names that the Celtics have shown interest in the past, and they could once again come into play this offseason.

Indiana’s Paul George is a player Boston has had its sights on for a while now. The only real concern the Celtics have with George is whether he’ll re-sign with them next summer when he becomes a free agent.

Rumors have circulated for a few months that the Palmdale, Calif. native is longing to be closer to home and play for the Los Angeles Lakers who have identified him as a primary free agent target when he becomes available.

Indiana might be motivated to move him sooner to ensure they’ll get something for him if he does, in fact, decide to move on.

But are the Celtics willing to risk giving up the number one overall pick (along with other key assets) for a player who may only be around for one season?

And while it is a long shot and on paper makes little sense, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis shouldn’t totally be discounted, either.

The Pelicans are a franchise right now that’s not going anywhere with their current allotment of talent, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

They gave up their first-round pick this year as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, so they’re not on the clock until the 40th selection, or 10th pick in the second round.

It would take a significant amount of assets to acquire Davis, but considering his age (he’s just 24 years old), talent, and versatility at both ends of the floor, he becomes an instant game-changer if the Celtics can get him.

Boston also likes Jimmy Butler of Chicago, although the Celtics aren’t likely to need to give up the number one pick to get him.

The Bulls have been hesitant to move Butler for many reasons.

For one thing, he’s a hell of player.

In addition, his contract (he has three years left on a five-year, $92.3 million deal that began with the 2015-2016 season) is very team-friendly for a player regarded as being among the top-15, top-20 in the NBA.

With the salary cap steadily rising, Chicago would likely have to pay significantly more than that if they traded for say, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, who each hit free agency in the summer of 2018.

No matter what direction the Celtics decide to go with the number one overall pick, there will be some risk involved.

But with that risk comes the tremendous potential to be rewarded with a great player who could be just what this franchise needs in order to bring home Banner 18. 

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

BOSTON –  Terry Rozier was having a rough stretch where his minutes were limited and when he did play, he didn’t play particularly well.
 
Among the voices in his ear offering words of encouragement was Avery Bradley who knows all too well what Rozier was going through.
 
For all his time as a Celtic, Bradley has let his work on the floor do the talking for him.
 
But as the most tenured Celtic on the roster, his leadership has to be about more than just getting the job done, but servicing as a vocal leader as well.
 
For a player whose growth from one year to the next has been a constant, being a more vocal leader has been the one dynamic of his game that has improved the most during this past season.
 
And it is that kind of leadership that will carry into the summer what is a pivotal offseason for both Bradley and this Celtics franchise which was eliminated by Cleveland in the Conference finals, the first time the Celtics got that deep in the playoffs since 2012.
 
He is entering the final year of the four-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2014. And it comes at a time when his fellow Tacoma, Wash. native and backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas will likely hit free agency where he’s expected to command a max or near-max contract that would pay him an annual salary in the neighborhood of $30 million.
 
At this point in time, Bradley isn’t giving too much thought to his impending contract status.
 
Instead, he’s more consumed by finding ways to improve his overall game and in doing so, help guide the Celtics to what has to be their focus for next season – a trip to the NBA Finals.
 
While Celtics players have said their focus has always been on advancing as far into the playoffs as possible, it wasn’t until this past season did they actually provide hope and promise that Banner 18 may be closer than you think.
 
It was an emotional time for the Celtics, dealing with the unexpected death of Chyna Thomas, the younger sister of Isaiah Thomas, just hours before Boston’s first playoff game this season.
 
And then there were injuries such as Thomas’ right hip strain that ended his postseason by halftime of Boston’s Eastern Conference finals matchup with Cleveland.
 
But through that pain, we saw the emergence of Bradley in a light we have seldom seen him in as a Celtic.
 
We have seen him play well in the past, but it wasn’t until Thomas’ injury did we see Bradley showcase even more elements of his game that had been overlooked.
 
One of the constant knocks on Bradley has been his ball-handling.
 
And yet there were a number of occasions following Thomas’ playoff-ending injury, where Bradley attacked defenders off the dribble and finished with lay-ups and an occasional dunk in transition.
 
Among players who appeared in at least 12 playoff games this year, only Washington’s John Wall (7.9), Cleveland’s LeBron James (6.8) and Golden State’s Stephen Curry (5.2) averaged more points in transition than Bradley (4.7).
 
Bradley recognized the team needed him to be more assertive, do things that forced him to be more front-and-center which is part of his evolution in Boston as a leader on this team.
 
“It’s weird but players like Al (Horford) definitely helped me get out of my shell and pushed me this year to be more of a vocal leader,” Bradley said.
 
And that talent combined with Bradley doing what he does every offseason – come back significantly better in some facet of his game – speaks to how he’s steadily growing into being a leader whose actions as well as his words are impactful.