|Managed playing time agrees with Shaquille O'Neal, who had 16 points yesterday vs. Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/AP/Canadian Press)|
The Celtics have been fighting through the challenge of facing every foe's top effort this season as the reigning NBA champs. With four NBA championship rings of his own and having had the spotlight on him since becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft 17 years ago, Phoenix center Shaquille O'Neal can more than relate.
"Ever since I came into the league, teams have been playing way above their head hitting shots wanting to beat me," said O'Neal, whose Suns play the Celtics tonight at TD Banknorth Garden. "Once I got the championship ring, it has gone up a different level.
"Just think about it . . . you beat the champs and you get the confidence. And if you put up good numbers against the champs, when you're going up for your contract you can say, 'Hey, I put up good numbers against the champs.' A lot of people have gotten contracts because of what they've done against the champs."
O'Neal said the 33-9 Celtics are doing fine.
"Guys just have been up for them," he said. "You can't win every game. They're still one of the top teams in the East."
With a healthy O'Neal back at the top of his game and talented teammates such as Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, and Grant Hill, the Suns (23-15) are one of the top teams in the Western Conference, too. But in the deep West, and with the division rival Lakers likely to win the Pacific, O'Neal and the Suns need as many wins as possible to make the playoffs and help with seeding.
While the Lakers, Hornets, and Spurs are considered the marquee teams in the West, O'Neal believes the Suns can rise above them all to get to the Finals. Phoenix has won seven of its past 10 games.
"We're still just figuring this stuff out," said O'Neal, who had 16 points and four rebounds while fouling out in a 117-113 win at Toronto yesterday. "I've been on teams that have dominated and won. I've been on teams that didn't dominate and won. I don't really worry about where we are. I just feel if we jell at the right time, then anything is possible."
For the Suns to challenge for a West crown, a healthy O'Neal is necessary.
Phoenix acquired O'Neal from Miami last Feb. 6 for forward Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks. The 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pounder arrived in Arizona with left hip inflammation that caused him to miss his first five games after being acquired. O'Neal was more mortal than his old unstoppable self as he averaged 12.9 points and 10.6 rebounds in 28 games with Phoenix. In 61 games with Miami and Phoenix last season, the veteran averaged a career-low 13.6 points.
"[Last season] I was really beat up on my hip and my whole right side," O'Neal said. "I got here and I was doing the little stuff they were telling me to do and it was getting better. But it really didn't get stronger until the summer and the beginning of [this season].
"Right now, I'm running better. I'm going left. I'm going right. I'm doing up-and-under moves. I'm diving into the stands. I'm feeling loose."
O'Neal said another reason for his drop in production last season was a lack of touches. But since he asked to get the ball more, he has played more like the 14-time All-Star than a star in the twilight of his career.
O'Neal averaged 8.1 field goal attempts per game with the Suns last season. The three-time Finals MVP, now 36, this season is averaging 11.0 attempts, good for 17.7 points and 8.9 rebounds. He's also got a career-best .628 free throw percentage.
"I'm just getting more shots," O'Neal said. "At the beginning of the season, I wasn't taking that many shots. I was like, 'Listen, if ya'll want me to be Shaq, you got to get Shaq out of penalty. I got dudes on my back and you got me playing like a token.
"I'm getting a little more opportunity, a little more shots. I have the ability to make other guys better, so when they pass and cut I was dropping them off [passes]."
O'Neal missed an overtime loss at Denver last Thursday as a maintenance day, which are more frequent now. The Suns are just 2-5 when he is not in the lineup. He knows it's important that he's on the floor as often as possible and said he expects to play tonight.
"We'll probably have to look into it a little more," he said about missing games to rest. "We'll probably have to evaluate certain situations."
"Shaq's problem hasn't been that he's getting old or not playing well," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Now that he's healthy and has the proper amount of rest, he's become a force. I would have taken him. He's still Shaq. He's still bigger than everybody in the league, he still weighs more than everybody in the league. He gives them a force."
O'Neal had been named to every All-Star team since 1993 until last season. Because of his injury and struggles on the court, the eight-time All-NBA first-team selection didn't believe he deserved it and preferred not to make it just on his name.
But with his play this season, O'Neal is hopeful he will return to the All-Star Game, which is in Phoenix Feb. 15. Since Houston center Yao Ming likely will be voted in as the West starter, O'Neal is competing against the likes of Minnesota's Al Jefferson, Utah's Mehmet Okur, and Denver's Nene for a reserve spot voted on by the West coaches.
"It would be nice to get in, but the one thing I'm not going to do is put on a cowboy hat and get on the Internet," said O'Neal in reference to the All-Star Internet push last season by Toronto's Chris Bosh. "Magic, Barkley, and Jordan never did that. Either you get voted in or you get picked by the coaches. If you do, you do. If you don't, you don't. That's the way it is."
O'Neal will be a free agent in the coveted 2010 market. And while it was thought he probably would retire after his contract his up, he won't be surprised if he is still playing in two years.
"I never said I was going to be done playing," O'Neal said. "I was just saying that it's motivation for myself. I have two years left to let me try to get it done. We'll see. I look at it now, there are guys making $10 million to $12 million averaging 3 points. I can average 12 until I'm 67."
While O'Neal acknowledged he was excited to play against the defending champions tonight, he believes the Celtics will be excited and challenged, too.
"I also get excited about playing against other great players," O'Neal said. "That's a hell of roster there. They're the champs. It's a measuring stick for those guys. It's a measuring stick for us."
Frank Dell'Apa of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com