Debut a slam dunk

O’Neal makes his presence felt

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By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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He played a statue last week in Harvard Square, allowing adoring Celtics fans to sidle up to him, to photograph him, and to soak up his larger-than-life aura.

Last night, in his Celtics debut in a 88-80 victory over the Miami Heat, Shaquille O’Neal was anything but statuesque. The self-anointed “Big Shamrock’’ did not reprise his Marcel Marceau impersonation in scoring 9 points and grabbing seven rebounds to go along with one blocked shot in 18 serviceable minutes against the Heat.

O’Neal cast quite a large presence in the paint not seen in these parts since . . . well, when’s the last time the Celtics started anyone at center as large as the 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pounder?

“He’s huge for us,’’ said Paul Pierce. “I think the numbers don’t really tell you how big he is for us.’’

Pierce said he recalled turning to Ray Allen with about six minutes elapsed in the third quarter and remarking how odd it was to see the Celtics in the bonus.

“Shaq drew about four or five fouls,’’ Pierce said. “We’re not a team that usually gets in the bonus that early, and that’s the presence he brings. Hopefully, it’s going to be like that all year long, when you get into the penalty and every foul from then on you go to the free throw line. Just having him, he’s a great finisher.’’

Shaq made that abundantly clear on his first two baskets of the night, both resounding dunks on feeds from Rajon Rondo.

The first came on an alley-oop throwdown made possible by a nifty Rondo floater with 8:07 remaining in the first quarter; the second resulted in a rather large fellow wearing a No. 36 Celtics jersey doing a chin-up on the rim after very nearly wrecking it with his thunderous two-handed transition dunk with 6:44 left in the period.

“I just wanted to come out here and play. I had some early-game jitters and I missed a couple of chippies,’’ O’Neal said. “But Rondo threw me a lob there and when I was running the court, he gave it back to me. We’re all going to get better and better and it’s going to be a great year.’’

Asked how much fun he had playing with Rondo, who recorded 17 assists, Shaq replied, “It’s a lot of fun. He’s the perfect point guard. He knows where all his guys are and he led us out there. He’s a great player.’’

Nattily attired in a dark blue pinstripped suit, O’Neal held court in front of his locker in the Celtics’ dressing room, but he seemed put off by the first question directed at him. It had to do with the Miami Heat.

Question: “In your best estimation, how long do you think it will take the Miami Heat to get up to the level of cohesion you guys play at?’’

O’Neal pursed his lips and went into his stone-faced statue mode.

Question: “A few weeks? A month? Half the season?’’

O’Neal then broke his silence. “Next question,’’ he said.

Asked how comfortable he felt in his Celtics debut, O’Neal said, “It felt good. We’re still learning each other. I missed a couple of chippies there.’’

But O’Neal did not miss when he made his first trip to the foul line, making both to seize temporary control of the league lead in free throws. A first no doubt for the Big Shamrock.

“I was leading the league? For real?’’ he said, breaking into a toothy grin.

Then, noting how he missed five of his next six foul shots, he cracked, “That record got messed up real quick.’’

Shaq did not want to disappoint in his Celtics debut. He felt the energy from the crowd, fed off it, and did his best to transfer it right back.

“It was great,’’ he said. “It’s a great town. I know people here are anxious to get [championship] No. 18 and we know it’s going to be like that all year. We want to remain an unbeaten team at home.’’

With Shaq now patrolling the paint on the parquet, that is not such a far-fetched notion.

“He’s a dominant force,’’ said Kevin Garnett. “You have to pay attention to him when he’s on the floor. The things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, the things he sees, his expertise, his experience, you can’t teach that.

“You can’t have someone come in and draw it up on the board and say, ‘Hey, this is what you do,’ ’’ Garnett said. “It’s instilled in him. He opens things up. [He] and I have been having a lot of extended dialogue about the game, and I think the more we play together, the better we’ll be. But so far, so good.’’

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