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Foul behavior costs Shaq

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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INDIANAPOLIS — It’s like a GEICO commercial, really.

An overambitious guard has his eyes set on the rim and decides to speed through the lane (he’s the compact car). Shaquille O’Neal, completely embracing his role as the Celtics’ concrete wall in the paint, sees him coming (he’s the Hummer). There’s a massive crash at the basket (that’s the traffic light). Not so much as a light is damaged on the Hummer, but the compact is crumpled up on the hardwood.

While O’Neal’s standing over the guard with his arms up, wearing his “What did I do?’’ face, the officials stare at the wreckage, then at each other, like traffic cops and insurance agents, trying to decide whether O’Neal committed a flagrant foul.

Somehow, even though O’Neal is in his 19th season, his unequaled size and accidental strength still make that a difficult question for officials. And O’Neal gets frustrated, too, just yesterday being fined $35,000 for comments about the officiating in the Celtics’ Christmas Day loss to the Magic.

“It’s just tough,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “You don’t know what a foul is or isn’t with Shaq.’’

Just last year, when then-Cavalier O’Neal pancaked the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo in a second-round playoff series, Rivers called O’Neal’s foul an “assassination.’’

Now?

“Even when you coached against him, it’s as difficult as there is,’’ Rivers said. “He’s just so physical. You don’t know when they’re flopping, you don’t know when he actually leveled a guy.’’

Rondo didn’t see it that way then or now.

“All his fouls aren’t flagrant,’’ he said. “When he fouls hard, they consider it a flagrant, but he’s just got a big mass.’’

O’Neal has been whistled for two flagrant fouls this season. He was at fault for the head-on collision with LeBron James in Miami, but the league reviewed his run-in with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and downgraded it.

Still, there are instances when it’s just hard to judge.

When O’Neal flattened Andre Iguodala in the Celtics’ win over the Sixers last week, the officials thought long and hard about whether to call the foul a flagrant. They decided against it. The indecision was telling.

“It’s got to be tough on him as a player because what he’s known from when he came in this league to now is completely changing,’’ said the Celtics’ Ray Allen. “He’s had to adapt. You’ve got to learn what the referees were calling, and every game it may be different.

“A lot of times I see him, and he jumps straight up and down, and since he’s so big it looks like he just laid him out, but he didn’t do anything. He just jumped straight up and down. If I did it, it would be a no call.’’

O’Neal’s war with Orlando’s Dwight Howard Saturday — which led to the postgame sarcasm showcase in which O’Neal targeted referee Bob Delaney — was your garden variety shoving match between two of the league’s biggest bodies. O’Neal found out yesterday how much his comments cost him.

He said he was waiting for the fine.

“Whoopdee-freaking-do,’’ he said. “In [19] years of playing in the NBA, I’ve paid over $90 million in federal tax, $40 million in FICA tax, and $1 million in David Stern tax.’’

The money was irrelevant; it was the principle, according to O’Neal. Both O’Neal and Howard wound up in foul trouble. Howard finished the 86-78 Orlando win with five, but he finished the game. O’Neal, who fouled out with just 2 points in 13 minutes, walked away feeling like he was playing by different rules than Howard. To an extent, said Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, who will have to deal with O’Neal tonight when the Celtics visit Conseco Fieldhouse, he was.

“Certain guys are just brutally hard to officiate,’’ O’Brien said. “Either the biggest guys in the league — the Dwight Howards, the Shaquille O’Neals — or the smallest guys in the league. Allen Iverson was very difficult to officiate because if you brushed him with a big body, he would fly all over the place.

“That’s a challenge for the officials. I think they try to get it right. I know there’s a great deal of pride in getting it right. But it’s a challenge for anybody that blows a whistle.’’

O’Neal is averaging more fouls (3.5) this season than he has since 2006-07, in dramatically fewer minutes (21.5). Celtics forward Paul Pierce said there’s no way referees can treat O’Neal the same way they do the rest of the league.

“It’s very difficult,’’ Pierce said. “When he backs you down, most guys can flop down and try to take a charge, but you’re talking about a guy who’s 7-2, 300-plus pounds. The first thing you’re going to do is fall backwards when he runs into you running down the court. Certain players in the league have to be refereed a little bit differently, and he’s one of them.’’

The collision between James and O’Neal was an interesting one, though. Based on his freight-train body type, James is another player who makes it difficult for referees to do their job. It’s hard to call defenders for fouls when they’re ricocheting off him.

“LeBron James drives the ball to the basket and somebody hits him, you can’t really see that it’s affecting him that much,’’ O’Brien said. “It’s probably an illegal hit, but he’s so big and powerful the illegality of the hit isn’t always called.’’

But when James crashes into O’Neal, it’s almost a fair fight.

“I wouldn’t want to officiate any game with those two guys in it,’’ Rivers said.

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

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