BOSTON — The Boston Celtics believe the Shaquille O'Neal project is moving in the right direction.
That might be questionable considering how the C's manhandled O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns last night, 117-97, in front of an ecstatic sellout crowd of 18,624 at TD Banknorth Garden in a possible NBA final preview.
That final reference could be said any time the Celtics play a Western Conference playoff opponent.
However, Boston point guard Sam Cassell said last night's blowout had more to do with a hungry Celtics squad than any Phoenix struggles.
"I think the Suns are actually playing really well, we were just a desperate team," said Cassell, whose Celtics had lost the previous two games. "You can really see what Shaq is bringing them. It's a dominance that they didn't have."
The Suns (47-24), who have now lost two straight, have still won seven of their last nine and do appear to be clicking much better now than prior to making the O'Neal-Shawn Marion trade in early February.
The 7-foot-1, 321-pound center had averaged 15.2 points per game and close to 11 rebounds in his five games prior to last night. He added a bruising 16-point, seven-rebound performance against the Celtics in just 28 minutes. At times he was vintage Shaq, muscling in put-backs with two or three guys draped all over him.
"Shaq is still a Hall of Famer so you have to come prepared," said center Kendrick Perkins, who more than held his own with the Big Cactus, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. "He's a tough cover and he's re-energized right now and playing well."
O'Neal felt that Phoenix was able to do what it wanted to do on offense, but was plagued by too many mistakes.
"I don't think the (Celtics) really took us out of our rhythm," said O'Neal. "I just think when you're playing a team like the Celtics in their building, you really can't make a lot of mistakes."
The Suns committed 21 turnovers and hit just four 3-pointers, which caused them to fight an uphill battle.
All-Star point guard Steve Nash had an off night with only 12 points and nine assists. That unusually poor stat line for Nash was another reason for Phoenix's struggles. On the flip side, Boston floor general Rajon Rondo was solid with 14 points and six assists on 7 of 12 shooting. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce combined for 57 points.
The Suns battled out of a 13-point deficit after the first quarter to tie the game at 57-57 at the half with O'Neal (10 points, five rebounds) leading the way.
"Shaq gave Phoenix that physicality that they wanted tonight," said Cassell. "He brought them back when they were down. He's a force."
With 11 games left in the regular season, O'Neal will most likely be playing 30-plus minutes a night with the Suns fighting for a playoff spot (they are currently No. 6 in the tightly-packed West). However, Perkins doesn't expect the 36-year-old Shaq to get tired.
"He has the stamina," said Perkins. "I think he is in great shape. He is still powerful and a force to be reckoned with."
In fact, Perkins took it a step further and pointed to the possibility that these two teams may see each other again down the line. Think June.
"I think the Suns are still trying to find their identity," Perkins said. "But once they do, watch out. They're going to be tough in the playoffs."
Matt Langone is an Eagle-Tribune sportswriter.
Celtics 117, Suns 97
Dandy Duo: Kevin Garnett (30 points) and Paul Pierce (27) combined for 57 points.
Streakbusters: The C's avoided what would have been their second three-game losing streak of the season. That's a far cry from last year when they had a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak.
Technically speaking: Shaquille O'Neal and Steve Nash both picked up technicals.
Not you, Nash: The Garden crowd roared "MVP! MVP!" when Kevin Garnett scored his final points.
Wrong direction: The Suns are 13-10 with Shaq and 33-14 prior to that.
Play of the night: Rajon Rondo nearly broke Steve Nash's ankles with a nasty crossover in the third quarter.
Glass plus: Boston held a huge 17-4 advantage on the offensive boards
Bolster lead: Boston improved to 56-15. Detroit, which has the second best record in the NBA, lost to Toronto to fall to 50-21.
Next up: Boston hosts New Orleans Friday at 7:30 p.m.