Even the Big Aristotle is finding it hard to figure out these Celtics.
Shaquille O’Neal was searching for the proper way to characterize the team that has now dropped the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals — and pulled off the amazingly difficult feat of doing that on their home floor.
As a No. 2 seed.
Against a No. 8 seed.
Miami may not be your average team that managed to slip into the playoffs by losing its first play-in game and getting the second, but neither do the Celts seem to be playing now like the team that finished with the second-best record in the entire NBA.
Chatting courtside at TD Garden with Heavy Sports, Shaq tried to describe the Celtics.
“They’re a very well-disciplined team,” he said.
Hold on. Seriously?
“It’s just sometimes they have these …” Shaq replied, his voice trailing off. “Like some teams you have to poke ’em to get them there, and when they’re poked they play well. But they need to learn how to play with that edge.
“Like, it’s the Eastern Conference finals, we’re against a team that only has one guy and nine others, four or five undrafted players … You can’t let a team like that (beat you).”
Shaq Pushing Jayson Tatum to Step Up
Yet the Celtics have, twice — though while Jimmy Butler is certainly that “one guy,” Bam Adebayo is more than just one of the “nine others.” And the Heat have a collective and aggressive approach that’s bedeviling the Bostonians.
Still, it’s nearly always the case in the NBA that the more talented team comes out ahead over a seven-game series. If you were choosing sides at the local park, Celtic players would fill out the preponderance of early spots.
But, as Shaq put it, the talent has to actually play to its level, which also takes playing within your team’s system and benefiting from the whole.
“That’s because the stars have to step up. Like, talent is good, but you can only say it’s talent on paper,” O’Neal said. “On the court, guys got to step up.”
League types (coaches, players, execs) have said the Celtics were better on paper than Golden State in last year’s Finals. But Steph Curry and the Warriors’ championship pedigree shone through, and threw the Celtics off their game at important times.
Shaq has intimate knowledge of the last time a team without a fast lane to the Hall of Fame star won the NBA title. That was in 2004 when the Lakers, with Shaq, Kobe Bryant and back-9 golfers Karl Malone and Gary Payton fell to Detroit in five games.
As an aside, the Finals were still in the 2-3-2 format then, and with the Lakers falling apart, writers covering the series were wondering during Game 5 if we’d have to fly back to Los Angeles or whether the Lakers — and us — would be put out of our misery there in Auburn Hills.
During halftime, with the Lakers down 10, I bumped into Shaq and gave him a shrug, as in, what’s going on here? He dejectedly shook his head, and moments later I returned to the media seating behind the basket and told everyone, “We’re going home. Trust me.” Twenty-four scoreboard clock minutes later, the Pistons had their championship.
“Well, you know what was going on,” Shaq told Heavy Sports. “It was time to break up. … People didn’t care if it got broken up.
“Like I knew after the game, because after the game certain people would talk to certain people, but nobody would talk to me. And then the next day, I was like, oh, I’m getting traded.”
One day shy of a month later, O’Neal was dealt to Miami, where he would win the 2006 NBA title.
Shaq: ‘I Would Have F***** LeBron and D-Wade Up’
Shaq had his last run with the 2010-11 Celtics, trying to squeeze a bit more out of the Pierce-Garnett-Allen troika. But injuries limited O’Neal to 36 games, and the C’s lost in five games in the conference semis to Miami — where LeBron James had just taken his talents.
“I always think that if I wouldn’t have got hurt, we could have at least made it to The Finals,” Shaq said. “I always say that. I wish Danny (Ainge) didn’t trade Perk (Kendrick Perkins) that year, because, I mean, we were like No. 1 throughout the whole year.
“I was just a role player then, but if we’d have made it to this thing, I would have f***** LeBron and D-Wade up in the playoffs. I promise I would have. That would have been my role. Like, as soon as they come to the hole, touch ’em up.”
Now 12 years later, if the Celtics want to touch the next round, they’ll have to win four of five games. And though clearly they’ll need to be more consistent with team play — passing, cutting, defending cohesively — Shaq is also looking for a certain star to shine.
“Jayson Tatum — you want to be good, want to be great, or do you want to be one of the greatest Celtics ever?” he said. “With him, being All-NBA, he’s going to have to step up. Game 7 (against Philadelphia)? That’s what you call stepping up. So he’s going to have to be there or a little bit under that.”
Or the Celtics will be under … achievers.