Inside Position Key for Shaq

In yesterday's game preview, I openly wondered if Wizards center JaVale McGee - currently the league's top shot blocker - would bother any of Shaquille O'Neal's field goal attempts, especially if the Celtics were ready to pump the ball down low to him and let him go one-on-one against McGee in the post. Shaq ended up scoring 13 points on 6-7 shooting in last night's game, and, as it turned out, McGee didn't have much of an impact on Shaq's scoring, if any at all. This is largely due, however, to the way in which Shaq scored his points in last night's game. While the Celtics made an emphasis to establish Shaq's offense early in the contest, they didn't resort to simply posting him up, feeding him the ball five or so feet from the basket, and letting him take it from there. Instead, all of Shaq's field goal attempts, according to Hoopdata, were at the rim, and they were all a result of either passes from his teammates, or putbacks off of offensive rebounds. 

Of the six field goals Shaq made last night, three were assisted on (two of which were crafty over-the-top passes - one from Rajon Rondo and the other from Ray Allen - that put Shaq in great position right beside the rim) and the other three came off of offensive rebounds (he hauled in four offensive boards last night). He scored off of his first two offensive rebounds, nearly scored off of his third, but had the shot altered by Andray Blatche, went up and got the ball again (his fourth offensive rebound) and then slammed it home after about 50 upfakes that Washington players continually bit for. 

The numbers from last night are also a reflection of Shaq's season thus far. He's been at his best for the Celtics when he's been scoring at the rim, mainly off of opportunities that develop as a result of his teammates. 

Heading into last night's game, Shaq was averaging 4.4 shots at the rim per game, and was making 68.2 percent of them. Perhaps more importantly is the fact that an incredible 86.7 percent of those baskets were assisted on. Now, let's compare those numbers to Shaq's production less than 10 feet from the rim. Prior to last night's game, he was averaging exactly two shots per game from this area, and his field goal percentage sat at just 40 percent. Additionally, only 50 percent of those shots were assisted on. These numbers aren't new to Shaq this season. In fact, his field goal percentages at the rim and less than 10 feet from the rim have been similar as far back as the 2007 season. 

The numbers suggest that much of Shaq's success on the offensive end depends on where he receives the ball. It's not exactly brain surgery in basketball: The closer you are to the rim when you shoot, the better chance you have of putting the ball in the basket. Shaq hasn't been as successful, at times, when he has posted up, received the ball, and tried going one-on-one against his defender. Consider the Celtics' most recent victory over the Miami Heat in which Shaq shot just 1-4 from the field (25 percent) and scored five points. Three of Shaq's four field goal attempts came less than 10 feet from the rim, and his only conversion came on a putback off of an offensive rebound. On two occasions he tried going one-on-one against Zydrunas Ilgauskas after posting up outside of the paint. He missed both of these attempts. The first issue was where he initially posted up. When Ilgauskas didn't back down, thus not allowing to let Shaq get close to the hoop, Shaq was forced to spin back into the paint, away from the hoop, and force up difficult field goal attempts because he was so far from the rim. On one occasion, he had to resort to a fading, off-balance jump hook after spinning left into the lane. 

Compare that game to the following one - a 116-110 overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in which Shaq had one of his best offensive outings as a Celtic with 18 points. Much like last night's game, the Celtics looked to get Shaq involved throughout the first quarter, and the result was a six-point frame for Shaq, with all three of his baskets coming on assisted slam dunks. Overall, he shot 7-10 for the game, and converted six of the seven shots he took at the rim. Four of those field goals were assisted slam dunks. 

This idea fits into the overall framework of the Celtics' offense this season. They've been instrumental in creating offense for one another, as they're currently leading the league in percentage of field goals assisted on. Other players are thriving because of this as well - most notably Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen - but Shaq's been perhaps the biggest benefactor, and his production has certainly played a role in the Celtics' 9-2 start. 

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