Boston Celtics: Shaquille O'Neal Has Become 'The Big Target' for NBA Refs

deleteth accounethCorrespondent IIIJanuary 20, 2011

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 19:  Shaquille O'Neal #36 of the Boston Celtics celebrates in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons on January 19, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Pistons 86-82. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Shaquille O'Neal has always done things big. Whether it's his status as one of the most dominant big men in the history of the NBA, his physical stature (7'1'', 325 pounds) or his larger-than-life personality, Shaq isn't one to shy away from the limelight.

This season has been no different.

Shaq has been a revelation to the Celtics. While he's not the player he once was, he gives the C's an inside scorer they've never really had in the big three era. He's held down the fort admirably in the absence of Kendrick Perkins and should be a very useful weapon off the bench when Perk is ready to return.

He has done everything asked of him, and more (see: Shaquita, The Big Conductor and his countless works of charity and service in and around Boston).

However, one thing remains fairly obvious to me: when critics said Shaq would be too slow or too old to fit with the Celtics complex defensive system, NBA officials were listening.

The one knock on Shaq this year has been his inability to stay on the floor. But, as the Celtics' most recent matchup with the Orlando Magic proved, it's not always been his fault.

At least one or two calls were purely invented on O'Neal, mostly the result of Dwight Howard's grade-A flopping ability.

The Big Shamrock finished the game with five personals in just 25:39 minutes of play. With O'Neal virtually rendered unusable for most of the game, an undersized Glen "Big Baby" Davis was forced to guard Dwight in the post. Howard finished with 33 points and 13 boards on 10-19 shooting. In 43 minutes of play, he was whistled for just one foul.

This season, despite averaging just 21.6 minutes per game, Shaq is being whistled at an alarming rate of 3.4 times per game, nearly one foul every six minutes of play.

In Shaquille's case, I may have to bring out the "sizest card." When a player drives through the lane, and Shaq has clearly established defensive position, the end result yields something more similar to a car crash than an offensive foul. Players bounce of Shaq left and right, yet he looks as if he was batting off a fly. Officials see a violent collision and blow the whistle, even when O'Neal is clearly in the right.

Yet all of this is indicative of an even more disturbing trend.

Despite the fact that they are solidly in the middle of the pack when it comes to points-in-the-paint (38.1 per game, 16th in NBA) and one of the best defensive teams in the NBA (44.0 opp. FG%, 5th best in NBA; 92.1 opp. PPG, best in NBA), they are a -3.0 (fifth lowest in NBA) when it comes to free throw differential. They are also attempting just 22.3 free throw attempts per game, the fourth lowest total average in the league.

For whatever reason, the Celtics are getting whistled for a great deal more fouls then they are receiving.

I think a good deal of this stems from a thought process similar to the one that that keeps Shaq off the floor. The Celtics aren't the most athletic team in the NBA, so when guys like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Glen Davis, Marquis Daniels, etc., go to the rim, there aren't any huge collisions. They don't highlight the contact, because they aren't moving nearly as emphatically as guys like Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant (who lead the NBA in free throw attempts), which makes the call somewhat harder for NBA officials to make.

Officials don't think Paul Pierce can still beat his man to a spot, or that Ray Allen really is as good around the rim as he is from deep. It seems as if in the case of the Celtics, prevailing opinions on athleticism and overall skill take precedence when it comes to who actually committed the foul. 

In the Celtics' 41 contests thus far this year, opponents have been to the line 25 more times than the Celtics (61 percent of their games), and have been even with them in free throws another four times (roughly 10 percent). The C's have been greater than their opponents in free throw attempts just 12 times all season (about 29 percent).

I would like to think that the Celtics are just as disciplined offensively, especially when it comes to drawing contact, as they seem. But if you ask an NBA official, they'll tell you otherwise.

Dan is a Boston Celtics and Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter by clicking this link.