Shaq O'Neal embracing role as enforcer

MEMPHIS -- The season-high 18 points and a team-best plus-9 in the plus/minus category confirmed Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers' assessment that Shaquille O'Neal turned in his finest performance in a Boston uniform during Saturday's 116-110 overtime triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum.

But there's no statistic that can document the intimidation factor that Boston gains when the 7-foot-2, 325-pound behemoth is on the floor.

How many guards settle for jumpers instead of bruises endured hitting the floor? How many bigs give up rebounds instead of eating an elbow?

O'Neal's value on the court can't always be measured in tangible metrics.

"Just the intimidation factor with him in the game; he gives us a presence that we haven't had, there's no doubt about that," said Rivers. "I told him right after the Miami game [on Thursday night], when you see him on the floor, it changes our team. It makes us bigger and it makes us better."

It was that Miami game in which O'Neal, playing his first contest after sitting out five straight due to a right knee bruise, threw a body-check on LeBron James that would make Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara blush. As James staggered to maintain his balance after the hit (even as O'Neal thrust his arms skyward to avoid further damage), referees assessed a flagrant foul based largely on the car crash-like impact of the collision.

O'Neal discussed his philosophy on unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects before Saturday's game, reaffirming the notion that his primary job description is "enforcer."

"That's what I do: No [expletive] layups," said O'Neal, throwing out a 12-letter curse word for effect. "Print it just like that and, if you get fined, come see me, and I'll reimburse you."

Clearly, O'Neal is all business about his role. He noted that there's a difference between a hard foul and a foul aimed at injuring an opponent. He aims for the former and, the way he sees it, he's got six of them to give a night.

During Saturday's game, O'Neal logged a symmetrical 22:22 of floor time, connecting on 7-of-10 shots -- mostly of the dunk variety -- while grabbing six rebounds. He also connected on 4 of 6 attempts from the charity stripe.

"He was even making free throws, so you know the stars were lined up," quipped Rivers.

For all the questions about how O'Neal would integrate into Boston's system -- and the many more about how his ego could fit in the locker room -- O'Neal was ultimately missed in both capacities while he sat out five games after knocking knees with New York's Amare Stoudemire last month at the TD Garden.

He opens space for Rondo to penetrate, and if a defender even thinks about helping, it leads to easy lobs (and, ergo, easy buckets, something Boston hasn't consistently generated at any point over the past three years). Defensively, O'Neal hasn't been nearly as much of a liability in the pick-and-roll as some made him out to be, aided by playing heavy minutes with a defensive-minded starting unit.

And then there's the intimidation factor.

"Even if he's not [producing] in some capacity, just being on the floor, is intimidating," said Ray Allen. "People won't come down [the lane]."

The exciting part for O'Neal is that there's still room for improvement. He said he's feeling fine after consecutive games, but three days of rest before Boston's next game will allow him to heal that knee even more. And he's still working on the chemistry with Boston's four incumbent starters.

"I'm still learning the other four guys," said O'Neal. "Once we hit 30, 40, 50 games out here, we'll be," kissing his fingers, "Mamma Mia!"

While building that chemistry, O'Neal will continue to be the sheriff of the paint. Asked Saturday about his flagrant-1 assessment against James, he scoffed a bit.

"I can get grabbed around the neck and it's not flagrant, but as soon as I body-check somebody …," O'Neal said trailing off. "Hey, man, I'm used to it. But, yeah, no layups. Guys in our league, they know that. They know I'm serious about that."

And since Glen Davis owns the market in charges taken (a ridiculous 16 through 10 games, with at least one in each game), O'Neal is happy to play bad cop to Baby's good, particularly if it's James storming the lane.

"You're supposed to take the bump and fall," explained O'Neal. "I'm not going to do that because they're not going to call it anyway. With him coming full speed like that, you're probably not going to block his shot, so you gotta chuck him. I think he missed, what, one of those free throws? So yeah, you just gotta chuck him. He's a tough kid, he can take it.

"There's a difference between a hard foul and trying to hurt somebody."

O'Neal knows that line and he gladly walks it. You can't measure hard fouls, but the impact shows on the faces of opposing players who later think twice about getting to the rim.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.