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Celtics 99, Bobcats 94

Throwback night for Celtics

Shaq surge helps subdue Bobcats

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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He was on his way to a 35-minute night against the Charlotte Bobcats, when, for a few sweet minutes in the third quarter, Shaquille O’Neal flopped down on the bench for some rest.

Semih Erden had punched in for him. But two personal fouls in less than a minute (Erden’s fourth and fifth in just eight minutes of action), forced O’Neal to go back in with just 36.7 seconds left.

As they walked by each other, there was a slightly annoyed exchange. The starters had been carrying the load all night in what turned out to be a 99-94 Celtics win. That moment was as emblematic as any.

“I was [mad], too,’’ Rivers said. “Shaq wants to play, but he doesn’t want to play 35 minutes. He had just said coming out, ‘Give me a blow here,’ and then bam-bam, Semih’s out.’’

After a stretch of up-and-down performances the past two weeks, O’Neal was in rare form last night. In a way, it was like watching a greatest-hits reel, seeing him break out a few oldies-but-still-goodies. The slick reverse. The hard, two-handed dribble into the easy layup off the glass.

O’Neal finished with a game-high 23 points, flirting with the season-high 25 he scored against the Nets Nov. 24.

The Celtics won their Eastern Conference-leading 18th home game, extending their winning streak over the Bobcats to six games.

Ray Allen scored 19 points, drilling four of his six 3-pointers. Rajon Rondo put up his 15th double-double (18 points, 13 assists), and Paul Pierce scored 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting as the Celtics beat the Bobcats for the fifth straight time at the Garden. But this one wasn’t nearly as dominant as the others.

Typically, the games are all stitched up by the half, but with a new coach in Paul Silas and a rediscovered confidence, the Bobcats wouldn’t go away.

“We let them hang around a little too long and we picked it up there,’’ O’Neal said. “We just held it there until the end.’’

With trade rumors swirling around him, Gerald Wallace still scored 20 points, getting to the line a game-high 10 times. For much of the early going, the Bobcats were able to dictate the game’s flow by getting to the stripe, taking 34 free throws as a team (to the Celtics’ 25).

“Doc didn’t like our pace,’’ said Rondo. “Obviously we fouled a lot throughout the entire game. They shot 14 or 15 free throws to our two or three. You can’t get a pace if you’re taking the ball out of bounds every time, every dead ball.’’

The Bobcats’ bench outscored the Celtics’ bench, 17-0, in the first quarter. The Celtics’ bench didn’t chip in its first points until Marquis Daniels knocked down a 21-footer with 5:50 left in the third quarter.

Up to that point, the Celtics’ starters had to put the game on their shoulders.

Pierce fueled a 14-6 surge to start the third quarter, scoring 8 points and drilling two threes, but it was still just a 3-point game going into the fourth quarter.

Even though the Celtics’ bench had offensive struggles, the point of emphasis with the game so close was to protect the lead by clamping down defensively. The Bobcats shot 44 percent in the second half, missing 12 of 20 shots in the third.

“It was a game of both teams trying to fight for their pace,’’ Rivers said. “I thought we established it in the second half. I told the bench in the third quarter, ‘If you don’t score a point, the lead can’t change,’ meaning get stops every time.

“We’ve got a lot of guys with offensive minds on the second unit, and if they’re not making shots, then all of a sudden they can’t defend anymore because mentally they’re still down on the offensive end. That’s what we just keep working with them at. They’re getting better at it.’’

When Wallace knocked down a 21-footer with 8:36 left in the fourth, Charlotte pulled to within 76-74. But Allen drilled a pair of 3-pointers and Rondo followed with one of his own to give the Celtics breathing room.

“It’s going to be nights they carry us and vice versa,’’ Rondo said of the bench. “As long as we got the win, it doesn’t matter if they scored or not. They did a great job. They didn’t give up a big lead or anything, so it was cool.’’

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