MIAMI—Shaquille O'Neal groaned as he curled his 7-foot body off the courtside seat, then took a slow first step toward the practice floor.
For the Boston Celtics, that was welcome progress.
O'Neal hopes to return to the Celtics' lineup when they visit the Miami Heat on Thursday, though neither he nor Boston coach Doc Rivers sounded like that was anything close to a certainty. O'Neal has missed the last five games with what has been diagnosed as a bruised right knee, though he said there's lingering pain around the midpoint of his shin as well.
"I invented a fibrillating knee brace, so I won't get hit there any more," O'Neal said, as he tugged on knee pads and a flexible sleeve around each of his calves.
The fact that he was joking around is a good sign.
At 38 years old, and a fair bit above his listed weight of 325 pounds, he isn't the always-dominant force he once was. The Celtics are just asking him to have moments of his old brilliance, and O'Neal believes he can still do that. Even though the final numbers showed him with just nine points and seven rebounds against the Heat in the season-opener on Oct. 26, he was at times a load Miami couldn't handle.
That might be one of the reasons he wants back against one of his former teams Thursday night.
"I'm not worried about no other team, brother," O'Neal said.
He repeated it a few times for emphasis: If people hadn't told him Miami was off to a 5-3 start, O'Neal insists he wouldn't have otherwise known.
"Got my own things to worry about," O'Neal said.
Like getting healthy, for one.
He averaged 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in the season's first three games, all in relatively limited action. But the Celtics are seriously banged up in the big-man department -- Jermaine O'Neal, another former Heat center, said he's still battling left knee pain that kept him sidelined for the second half of Boston's game in Dallas.
Knowing that, Shaq said he'll try to play against the Heat. Rivers said the Celtics wouldn't rush the process.
"Likely neither ... maybe both ... who knows?" Rivers said when asked about whether either O'Neal would be in the lineup for the second meeting of the season against Miami.
There was a time when a nagging injury would have soured Shaquille O'Neal's mood on everything. That was the case in his final weeks with Miami, when hip problems kept him off the court and added to an irritating time in his life -- all leading to his trade to Phoenix and the Heat starting over with the 2010 free agency period in mind.
Shaq eventually landed in Cleveland and now Boston, where he says he'll spend the final two seasons of his career.
"It's been perfect," Shaq said. "I couldn't have scripted out my last 700 days any better. Great guys, great coach, great city. I live outside of Boston, even a greater city out there in Sudbury where I live at. Nice and peaceful, it's good, good for an old man to just chill out. I've got a nice farm on 10 acres, got a nice little chair, out there I see wild turkeys and fox and coyotes in my grass. Loving it."
He'd love it more if he could get back on the court.
"Feeling better," O'Neal said. "That's a start."