Shaquille O'Neal put forth another impressive performance last night, totaling 16 points and 9 rebounds in 22 minutes in the Celtics' 110-101 victory over the Toronto Raptors. It was Boston's third straight victory, and over the course of the streak, Shaq's averaged 18 points and 10.3 rebounds.
But what stuck out to me most last night about Shaq - besides that thunderous block he delivered on Linas Kleiza with 4:21 left in the third quarter - was his body language after he converted a number of his baskets. There were times last night, in a regular season game in November, against the Toronto Raptors, when Shaq looked like he really wanted to win, as if last night's game was more than just a regular season affair. There was no coasting, or settling for mediocre attempts at the rim. Instead, Shaq took his feeds from teammates and laid them in with a loud authority that isn't often seen from 38-year old NBA centers. And it's been that way all season. Shaq's here to win, and he continues to play like it.
On one particular play, after being fouled while converting a basket, Shaq whirled around and marched towards half court, arms flexed, with an enraged expression on his face. People joke about not wanting to meet Shaq in a dark alley, and that was the type of expression you wouldn't want to see on his face if you met him in such a scenario. My first thought was: Did something happen under the basket? Did someone slip him a cheap shot in the ribs or gut while the officials weren't looking? Nope. Shaq was just in "All Business" mode, and those two points mattered.
Doc Rivers admitted after last night's game that he didn't know what to expect out of Shaq when the Celtics signed him over the offseason. There were those who deemed him the next Rasheed Wallace, in that he would walk in out-of-shape, and coast his way through the regular season, before turning things on when the real games got going. It's been just the opposite. When he's been healthy, he's contributed, and he isn't waiting until the playoffs to show us he's determined to win his fifth NBA Championship.
Can he keep this production up? That depends largely on whether or not the Celtics continue to play the pass-first style of basketball that's defined them this season, as Shaq's been perhaps the biggest beneficiary.
But it also depends on how Shaq approaches the games he plays in, and, as evidenced by the following quote, the big picture is what's fueling him, even in these regular season games.
"18-25," O'Neal said of his quest for another title. "The city wants 18, Doc and them want 2, and I want 5. Every day when I think about what we're trying to do, it's 18-25."