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O’Neal able to step up to the plate

Shaquille O’Neal (left) and Kevin Garnett head to the bench after some first-quarter action. Shaquille O’Neal (left) and Kevin Garnett head to the bench after some first-quarter action. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / December 23, 2010

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When Shaquille O’Neal stepped to the foul line for a pair of important shots with 4:33 remaining in last night’s 84-80 victory over the 76ers, he received some coaching from Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. From his seat near the Celtics basket, Big Papi tried to give Big Shamrock some pointers by mimicking a shooting motion just before O’Neal took dead aim at the basket.

It seemed to work wonders.

O’Neal made both free throws, prompting Ortiz to spring from his seat and lead the rousing cheer from the sellout TD Garden crowd of 18,624 as the Celtics pulled within 74-72.

“We had Papito down there doing some sideline coaching,’’ said Kevin Garnett, who followed those momentous free throws with a jumper that tied it at 74.

“Good looking [out], Papito, appreciate that. That was definitely love,’’ Garnett said, before bursting into a chuckle. “Nah, but Shaq was big for us, second half. He did a great job of drawing fouls. We did a better job of finding him as he dove in. We kept missing him a couple of times, but we did a better job of just being aggressive, going to the basket, and drawing fouls.

“Nights where you’re shooting 37-38 percent, you’re going to have to lean on your defense and I thought we got into a nice rhythm defensively,’’ Garnett said. “But back to the big fella; he was huge when we needed him.’’

Especially down the stretch when the Celtics’ bid for their 14th consecutive victory looked very much in doubt.

Asked why he went to O’Neal in the fourth, summoning him from the bench to sub for Glen Davis with 5:25 to go and the Celtics trailing, 72-68, coach Doc Rivers said, “Nothing else was working. As a coach sometimes, really, you just try and mix it up. I thought Shaq had a great energy tonight. I thought he was disruptive in the paint.’’

Garnett couldn’t have agreed more.

“He was huge for us, because he got us into the bonus,’’ said the Big Ticket. “He drew fouls. When you got Shaq in there, it’s like a luxury. He’s like a black hole, because he just sucks everything in and it gives Ray [Allen], Paul [Pierce], some of our perimeter guys — even myself — open shots that normally you don’t get to have, so he’s a luxury.’’

With the Celtics trailing, 55-54, after a Jrue Holiday foul shot, O’Neal combined with Marquis Daniels on the game’s most jolting play. Daniels attacked the basket and lobbed a perfect alley-oop to Shaq, who went high for the rim-rocking, one-handed slam that electrified the crowd and gave the Celtics the lead.

“He’s been great like that for us all year,’’ Daniels said. “But I just got him the ball and he finished it.’’

And what a finish it was.

“This is the most unselfish team I’ve ever played on,’’ said Shaq, who wound up scoring 13 points and grabbing 9 rebounds, including 6 on the offensive end, to go along with 2 blocked shots and a steal. “Nobody really cares too much about scoring. Doc is a great coach, everybody’s playing well, and the crowd gave us a lift tonight.’’

And while the Papi-assisted foul shots proved to be huge, O’Neal lamented the two he missed as the Celtics clung to an 82-80 lead with 1:02 to go.

“Yeah, I just got to hit them,’’ said O’Neal, who wound up making 3 of 7 foul shots, including 2 of 4 in the fourth quarter. “Story of my life. I’m No. 5 [all-time] in scoring and I should be No. 2 in scoring; missed 5,000 free throws. A lot of times, it’s just me trying too hard and I wanted them too hard. But I’ve been shooting them well this year and I won’t let us down. I want to hit ’em all.’’

Even if takes a little help from his friends.

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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