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.