Jermaine O'Neal in charge on D
PHILADELPHIA -- Standing next to each other on one side of the paint, Boston Celtics teammates Jermaine O'Neal and Glen Davis saw, at precisely the same moment, a Sixers ball-handler ready to drive from the opposite baseline.
Like two shoppers racing for a must-have Christmas gift on Black Friday, the two practically pushed each other out of the way trying to scramble over and draw an offensive foul.
In a way, it seemed appropriate. These two figure to be pushing each other to take charges all season long.
"It's a contest this year: Who can draw the most charges," O'Neal said after the game with a big grin. "And I believe I'm going to win it."
After making his debut Sunday, O'Neal anointed himself the undisputed charge champion of the world. All he's missing is a Rasheed Wallace-like title belt. It's an art he takes great pride in and isn't bashful about telling one and all how good he is at it.
Even if someone who disagrees with him happens to wear stripes.
The charge tally during Boston's 103-92 preseason loss to the Sixers on Tuesday between O'Neal and Davis was at one apiece when O'Neal stepped in as Andres Nocioni plowed into him while driving baseline in the third quarter.
The whistle blew and O'Neal looked up from the ground expecting to see the referee pointing in the opposite direction. Instead, the referee's fists hit his hips indicating a blocking foul on O'Neal, who then earned a technical foul for voicing his displeasure while on his back.
That's how serious O'Neal is about taking charges.
"You can't teach it," he said. "It's about giving up your body. It takes a lot out of you, but it helps the team."
Last season, the Celtics were a below-average team in terms of taking charges, averaging only 1.5 per game (the league average was 1.8, and only three teams finished with fewer than Boston).
Davis and Paul Pierce were the best at giving up their bodies. But it seems the addition of O'Neal should bring out the best in all three players.
"They think they're getting paid for them," joked Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has no plans to open his wallet for charges the way Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson tried to last season after calling his team "thin-chested" before the NBA Finals.
"That's who both [O'Neal and Davis] are. It's a good year to get Baby to understand that he's not going to sky in the air and block shots. But he can get his body in the way of everybody and take charges. Baby is phenomenal at it. J.O. does it naturally; that's just who he is."
It might be the best part of O'Neal's game right now, as he's gotten some inspiration from drawn charges in each of his first two exhibition games with the Celtics. On Tuesday, he also shined on the glass, hauling in a game-high 12 rebounds in 18 minutes, 43 seconds of action.
That offset a night when he connected on just 1-of-6 shooting for 2 points. He hit a free-throw line jumper 34 seconds into the second half for his first bucket in a Boston uniform.
"I'm putting this thing together like a puzzle, I guess," O'Neal said. "I'm still struggling offensively to get a rhythm, but you've got to keep building. You can't get too frustrated. That's what it's about: Do whatever you can do to get a rhythm for Oct. 26," when the Celtics open the season against the Miami Heat.
"I'm surprised I'm struggling with the offense, something I do pretty well, but I rebounded better and I'm kind of putting it all together. I need to continue doing what I'm doing and don't get frustrated."
Rivers said he didn't mind the missed shots, figuring that part of O'Neal's game will come around. The coach likes what he's seen from O'Neal on the court, even as he finds his legs after missing a week of practice and the team's first two preseason games with a sore left hamstring.
"It's funny, he was looking at the 1-for-6 and I told him that I could care less about the missed shots," Rivers said. "It's my fault for the five that he missed. It's the 12 rebounds that stood out, the blocked shot and taking charges. He's going to be good for us, defensively.
"I'm not concerned with his offense. And I don't think he really cares, either. Obviously you want to make shots, but I think he understands his role. He's doing a terrific job of it."
With O'Neal on the court, Boston's second unit thrived (the unit started Tuesday's game as the Big Three, Rajon Rondo and Shaquille O'Neal all got the night off). Even without guard Delonte West (back spasms), the reserves put together strong efforts at the start of both halves and staked the Celtics to a 12-point lead midway through the third quarter before the 76ers rallied, playing their starters against Boston's third-teamers in the fourth period.
Rivers wouldn't bite when asked if Jermaine O'Neal's strong performance with the second unit might have him leaning toward keeping him with the reserves at the start of the season. In fact, Rivers expects to trot him out with the starters Wednesday night in New York to see how that unit meshes.
Said Rivers: "That's a decision we'll make with Shaq and J.O., but I'm not concerned by it."
Neither is Jermaine O'Neal, who enjoyed his time on the floor with Davis and the other reserves Tuesday night.
"I like being out there with this team in general," he said. "Baby brings a different dimension, like a lot of guys, and we're out there racing. When you're trying to cut guys off [to take a charge], that's a good thing. If we're cutting guys off, we're going to be one of the top defensive teams in the league, for sure."
And Boston might just find itself at the top of the league in charges taken as well.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.