THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celtics hope a vertical jump gets them back on track

Size could keep them in running

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / September 27, 2010

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So, the Celtics watched their chance at banner 18 fall short because they lost a war of big-man attrition with the Lakers (who brought a pair of 7-footers to the fight), and how did they respond?

They spent the summer super-sizing their roster.

Did they get older? Certainly. Did they get better? Possibly. Did they get bigger? Definitely.

To a degree, the Celtics — who open training camp today with media day in Waltham and with workouts starting tomorrow in Newport, R.I. — were merely addressing a need. When Kendrick Perkins tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6 of the Finals, they were well aware that they’d have to play the first half of this season without their starting center. So they signed a pair of O’Neals, first Jermaine then Shaquille, in free agency.

“We’ve got to be the biggest team in the league now,’’ Jermaine O’Neal said.

At the very least, the team they’ve assembled looks down on the one president Danny Ainge put together last season. The team’s average height is about 6 feet 7 inches, roughly 2 inches taller than last year’s.

So, exactly how much will all the size matter? Size — or a lack thereof — mattered enough for Ainge to reset the Celtics’ offseason course. Had it not been for Perkins’s injury, the Celtics would have had the money to throw at a wing player to spell Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (maybe Mike Miller or J.J. Redick). Instead, they spent the mid-level exception on Jermaine O’Neal, and signed Shaquille O’Neal to a two-year, $2.8 million contract.

“We really felt like there was a hole there the first half of the season with Perk starting the season with his injury,’’ Ainge said. “So with the limited resources we had to build the team, we felt like that was the spot that we had to put most of our resources in. So being able to get Shaq and Jermaine with the resources we had was very successful for us.

“We went into this year, because of the Perk injury, maybe our focus would have been more on backup wings for Paul and Ray, and we probably would have allocated dollars differently in our offseason spending.’’

One huge “what if’’ lingered throughout the summer — coach Doc Rivers pointed to it immediately after the Finals and then again in July. If Perkins hadn’t been on crutches, would the Celtics have won Game 7?

The Celtics outrebounded the Heat, Cavaliers, and Magic to win the Eastern Conference title. But the boards told the story in the Finals. The Lakers outrebounded the Celtics by an average of 42.4-37.9. in the series. The team with the most rebounds won each game. But in Ainge’s opinion, the impact of rebounding on the Finals was overblown.

“Last year, our rebounding wasn’t very good during the regular season,’’ Ainge said. “In the playoffs it was very good. Game 7, we got outrebounded bad in Game 7, but it wasn’t all the bigs. The Lakers put three guys on the offensive glass. In that game, [Ron] Artest really hurt us on the offensive boards.

“I don’t think it was necessarily because we didn’t have Perk — and by the way, we were outrebounded by 10 in the first quarter but were ahead by 10 points, so we were shooting the ball extremely well. There’s other ways to win. But I thought our rebounding was excellent in the playoffs.’’

If anything, the major slippage came during the regular season, when the rebounding numbers for Rajon Rondo, Pierce, and Allen were all down from the previous year. The Celtics went from being a top-10 rebounding team in 2008-09 (42.1) to next to last last season (38.6).

“Hopefully, it cures our rebounding woes,’’ Rivers said. “Listen, we’re not going to have Perk for a while. So we went out and we got the O’Neal brothers. But I think Rondo and Paul, I think all those guys have to rebound better than they did last year, as well. I thought if you looked at our numbers, everyone’s numbers were down, not just the bigs.’’

The overhaul also stretched to the coaching staff. Toward the end of the summer, the Celtics parted ways with big-man coach Clifford Ray, who helped develop Perkins and several others in his six years with the team, and replaced him with Roy Rogers, a disciple of new assistant coach Lawrence Frank. But thinking about the impact rebounding had on the Finals ate at Ray.

“If you look at our loss, which was the most heartbreaking thing I ever went through in my life, here I am a guy who played the 5 position his entire life, and no matter how you look at it, what it came down to was our inability to ward off those second-chance opportunities,’’ Ray said. “It cost us the basketball game. But those things happen, and you’ve got to move forward.’’

The Celtics moved forward by thinking big, and have given themselves more options in the frontcourt. Jermaine O’Neal gives them a forward/center who can rebound and shoot. Shaquille O’Neal is still one of the best defensive rebounders in the league. And when he returns, Perkins has unparalleled defensive chemistry with Kevin Garnett.

“I think we’re all going to make each other better,’’ Jermaine O’Neal said. “We all do something different than the other. We all respect what we bring to the court as players.’’

Even if the Celtics don’t have the young star power Miami does in Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James, they have the beef the Heat lack. And when healthy, they have the size to combat the Lakers.

“So, we’ll find out,’’ Rivers said. “I think that’s an area we’ve addressed on paper, size.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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