He’s adding punch to line
Jermaine O’Neal a force in middle
WALTHAM — The numbers Jermaine O’Neal finished with in the Heat’s first-round playoff loss to the Celtics last season were a statistical punch line.
He missed 80 percent of his shots, clanging it from every conceivable spot inside the arc.
He was an easy target for criticism, but in the Celtics locker room, no one was thinking about his shooting.
“When everyone kept talking about how poorly he was playing against us, we just kept saying, ‘Every time we drove, that guy was there.’ He was blocking our shots,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
O’Neal blocked more shots in that series (10) than he made (9), and when the Celtics were hunting for centers in the offseason, that’s what came up in the conversation between Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
“He was an irritant last year,’’ Rivers said. “Danny and I were talking, and I said, ‘I want irritants on my team so they can irritate other people.’ ’’
In Sunday’s Game 1 of the Celtics’ first-round playoff series against the Knicks, won by Boston, 87-85, O’Neal stuffed an early layup attempt at the rim by Amar’e Stoudemire, yelling and then grinning slightly, and sending a message to the Knicks’ franchise player.
“I’ve always played with an edge,’’ O’Neal said. “I’ve always been an intense guy. Sometimes it goes over the line, sometimes it gets a team energized.’’
O’Neal swatted four shots, and the Celtics set a physical tone that the Knicks are now bracing for in tonight’s Game 2.
“They’re going to do the exact same thing,’’ Stoudemire said. “Crowd the ball, make it tough for us to dribble, try to bring help whenever we catch the ball. So it’s up to us to make counter moves.’’
Rivers said O’Neal, who missed 45 games because of knee, calf, and Achilles’ issues in his right leg, is wearing a new brace. The coach said it is still possible O’Neal could be available in the series. The break before Friday’s Game 3 gives him more time to rest.
“We’ve got two days that he can practice, hopefully,’’ Rivers said. “Even if he doesn’t practice, he can do something on the floor with us and we’ll make an evaluation.’’
Even though Jermaine O’Neal played well in the opener, Rivers said that doesn’t buy the Celtics any time regarding Shaquille O’Neal’s recovery.
“If you can play now, you’re going to be on the floor,’’ he said.
He wasn’t mad at anyone in particular. He was fuming because Allen was so open.
“The crazy thing about it, he just had a wide-open three,’’ Douglas said. “I [didn’t] want to talk to nobody because I know I wouldn’t let him have a wide-open three like that.’’
How Allen got that open is a point of contention.
The Knicks believe Douglas was tripped by Kevin Garnett as Douglas was chasing Allen. The Celtics maintained that Garnett set a subtle screen that freed Allen just enough.
Then there’s Rivers’s view.
“I thought that, uh, Douglas tried to trip Kevin,’’ he said sarcastically. “I thought that was awful. And it was great that Kevin stood up to it.’’
Joke aside, Rivers said he thought the screen was clean.
“Honestly, I thought Kevin’s feet were down,’’ Rivers said. “They did get tangled up. So that could have gone whatever way you wanted it to go.’’
Douglas felt the screen was questionable.
“They’ve been doing that for a lot of years, and they get a lot of respect in this league,’’ he said. “You can talk about it and say, ‘Oh, I got tripped.’ But at the end of the day, I don’t want any excuses. But I feel like if I [didn’t] get tripped, he wouldn’t have had that shot.’’
“It’s kind of crazy I’m on the floor with these guys,’’ he said.
Now, a year after being traded by the Celtics, who drafted him, Walker’s playing against them in the first round.
“Out of all people to play, we’re playing Boston,’’ he said.
He quickly got reacquainted with Pierce in Game 1, when Carmelo Anthony hit the bench early in the first quarter with two fouls. Pierce scored 8 of his 18 points in the first quarter. Walker knows he’ll have his hands full during the series.
“Who hasn’t seen Paul’s game?’’ he said. “It’s not anything you’re going to stop. You’ve just got to hope he’s having an off night. It’s just the type of shot you force him to take that determines if you’re going to have [success].’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.