Celtics hack it in fourth
Down 8, O’Neal sparks rally to defeat Pistons
None of it made the least bit of sense to Ray Allen.
Greg Monroe had just sliced his way to the rim for a layup that gave the Pistons an 82-78 lead over the Celtics with a little more than three minutes to play. Then, before the Celtics could so much as think about going back down the floor, Monroe immediately searched out Shaquille O’Neal, fouling him and putting him on the line.
“I didn’t even know what happened,’’ Allen said. “Once he went to the free throw line, I was like, ‘What just happened. We had the ball. How did Shaq . . . ?’ ’’
Then, it dawned on him.
Even before last night’s 86-82 loss to the Celtics, the times couldn’t have been more desperate for the Pistons. One of their recent cornerstones, Richard Hamilton, had been benched for four straight games while the Pistons attempt to trade him (he also didn’t play last night), they were 11 games below .500, and they were searching for wins however they could get them.
O’Neal, who missed both free throws after being hacked, had been an unlikely spark for the Celtics, fueling a 28-point fourth quarter by putting his fingerprints on nearly every play, trying to bring the Celtics back from an 8-point hole.
“We were down  and I just felt like I had to do something — dive on the floor, knock people around, get the crowd involved,’’ O’Neal said. “I think I helped out a little bit.’’
So when Pistons coach John Kuester reached for the one seemingly surefire way to derail O’Neal, the measure only reflected the times.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers knew it was coming at some point this season. When Kuester went to the Hack-a-Shaq, Rivers immediately thought about taking O’Neal off the floor.
“If we wanted to sub Shaq out, you had to sub him out for one minute because at the two-minute mark you can’t [Hack-a-Shaq] anymore [because the Celtics would keep the ball],’’ Rivers said. “When it worked the first time, and they scored and went up 4, we assumed they were going to do it again. I was going to call a timeout, sub for the 30 seconds, and bring him back in. They didn’t.’’
Instead, the Pistons allowed a layup to Kevin Garnett (11 points, six rebounds) as the Celtics closed to 82-80 with 2:25 left.
As the game tightened, there was no trick defense for the Celtics’ primary weapons.
Paul Pierce hit a step-back jumper with 1:20 left to tie the game at 82.
Then, with 24.5 seconds left, Allen, who had missed all four of his 3-point attempts, curled to the right wing, taking off with his foot just touching the arc, and drilled a 21-foot 2-pointer that put the Celtics ahead, 84-82.
“Ray just makes shots,’’ Rivers said. “He’s the one guy, he could go 0 for 10, you know the one guy who believes he’s going to make it is Ray. Ray’s a shooter. Shooters make shots.’’
The Celtics snapped the Pistons’ season-high three-game winning streak while extending their own winning streak to four.
Pierce finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting. O’Neal had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“I thought Shaq was the difference in the game with his energy,’’ Rivers said. “Forget size. Size and energy. He won the game for us tonight. He did all the little things — crashed the glass, he was physical, he blocked shots.’’
But before last night, O’Neal was a crunch-time spectator, seeing fourth-quarter action in just 17 games and averaging a little more than four fourth-quarter minutes.
Last night, he was the spark the Celtics had been missing for three quarters. He scored 7 points in the fourth to go with three rebounds and two steals.
“Shaq was active in the fourth,’’ Garnett said. “He gave us our energy and our lift tonight. Shaq led that charge. He doesn’t usually play a lot in the fourth quarter. He understands that. But tonight he was assertive. I’m not going to say he was calling the plays, but he was initiating a lot of the talk and the communication.’’
O’Neal was just glad to see crunch time. But he wished he could get the two free throws back.
“I always want to hit them,’’ he said. “I’m kind of [upset] at myself that I didn’t hit them. I was ready to shoot them, but they just didn’t go down. I think if we had lost the game I would have been upset. But keep in mind, really, really, really need them, I’ll be there, and you won’t have to worry about it. Studies show.’’