The Boston Celtics are once again stumbling into the playoffs, having gone 9-9 since March 9. Before this stretch, the Celtics led the Eastern Conference by three games in the loss column over the Chicago Bulls and by six games in the loss column over the Miami Heat.
Now, they need to win in Miami on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) to avoid falling into third place and likely having to win three series on the road to earn banner No. 18. (The Celtics and Lakers are currently tied at 55-24, with L.A. holding the tie-breaker.)
Some may blame the Kendrick Perkins trade for the Celtics’ struggles over the last month, but their problems have been more with their offense (scoring just 101.6 points per 100 possessions over the last 18 games) than with their defense (allowing just 97.7). And while the Celtics look like less of a title contender without Perkins, they’ve still had one trump card in their pocket since the trade, and that is how dominant they were with Shaquille O’Neal in their lineup.
Shaq has played 30 minutes or more just three times this season, but the Celtics are 28-9 with him in uniform, and that includes games without Rajon Rondo and/or Kevin Garnett.
O’Neal has played with the other four Celtics starters in just 18 games. But they were 15-3 in those games and 9-1 against playoff teams. With that lineup intact, they beat the Heat twice, and they beat the Knicks, Bulls, Magic and Lakers.
Of lineups that have logged at least 200 minutes together, the Celtics’ lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has been the second-most dominant, only trailing another lineup that has been affected by injury…
Top 10 five-man units, minimum of 200 minutes played (68 lineups total)
||Kidd, Stevenson, Butler, Nowitzki, Chandler
||Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, O’Neal
||Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Davis
||Collison, Dunleavy, Granger, McRoberts, Hibbert
||Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Odom, Gasol
||Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, Duncan, McDyess
||Miller, Matthews, Batum, Wallace, Aldridge
||Chalmers, Wade, James, Bosh, Dampier
||Blake, Brown, Barnes, Odom, Gasol
||Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, Duncan, Blair
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
Off. Eff. = Points scored per 100 possessions
Def. Eff. = Points allowed per 100 possessions
You’ll note that if you replace Shaq with Glen Davis, you have a lineup that’s played a lot more minutes together and has been nearly as good — slightly better defensively and slightly worse offensively.
And on the offensive end of the floor, where the Celtics have been struggling most over the last month, is where Shaq can help the Celtics most. The lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field (easily the highest among five-man units that have played 200 minutes together). And with O’Neal on the floor, Allen (38-for-69) and Pierce (30-for-59) have combined to shoot an incredible 53 percent from 3-point range.
As long as the Celtics have their four All-Stars on the floor, they’re pretty good. But with both O’Neal and Davis healthy, Doc Rivers has the option of going to either an offensive or defensive lineup. Though it’s certainly not all his fault, the Celtics have had lesser results with Jermaine O’Neal thus far…
Efficiency on floor with Rondo, Allen, Pierce & Garnett
StatsCube can’t quantify it (perhaps in the next version), but having Shaq in their lineup can also help get the Celtics’ swagger back. They lost some of that swagger when Perkins was traded, but they were looking pretty confident earlier in the season, when he was rehabbing and they had replaced him with a four-time champion, a 15-time All-Star, and the fifth leading scorer in NBA history.
But of course, less than six minutes after Shaq returned to action from a 27-game absence last Sunday, he was heading back to the locker room with a strained calf. It doesn’t look like he’ll play Sunday in Miami and his status is unknown for the Celtics’ final two regular season games (Monday at Washington and Wednesday vs. New York).
The Celtics are still a great team without Shaq. And finally having Jermaine O’Neal certainly helps. But the numbers speak for themselves, and with Shaq, the Celtics are on another level. He’s their trump card, and if they can get him (and keep him) on the floor in the postseason, they’re back to being the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. Send him an e-mail or follow him on twitter.