Erden shifted to pivotal role

With Shaq out, rookie steps in

Semih Erden dunks for 2 of his 8 points, and added 3 rebounds in 18 minutes. Semih Erden dunks for 2 of his 8 points, and added 3 rebounds in 18 minutes. (Tim Shaffer/ Reuters)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — The last thing Semih Erden wanted to be was nervous.

“I don’t like nerves,’’ he said.

He was the starting center last night with Shaquille O’Neal nursing a sore right calf. The crash course with the first-teamers at shootaround was a rough one.

“They were pretty hard on him this morning about defense. ‘You don’t come in our group and screw things up,’ ’’ said coach Doc Rivers.

There’s a certain standard the first unit expects.

“Any time you start, you know the expectation level goes up a little bit,’’ Kevin Garnett said.

But Erden’s 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 18 minutes were all valuable in the Celtics’ 102-101 win over the Sixers. The Celtics were thin all around, especially in the frontcourt, and they called on the Turkish rookie to fill a huge void on the road.

“I tried my best, first defense then offense. I think I helped the team so I’m very happy,’’ Erden said. “I keep my focus and when Coach calls me, I’m ready.’’

With the Celtics battling nagging injuries to Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, it likely won’t be the last time Erden hears his name called.

“He’s big for us,’’ Garnett said. “We’re going to need him.’’

The language barrier makes it difficult for the first unit to have the same chemistry with Erden.

“He understands a lot of things, but then some things he doesn’t get,’’ said Paul Pierce. “So Kevin’s got to constantly communicate with him, and he’ll get it. What he’s giving us right now is great because of the bodies we have out there.’’

Getting him to understand the defense is the biggest point of emphasis. That, and speaking up.

“That’s the biggest challenge,’’ Pierce said. “Just understanding the system, understanding the rotations . . . We’re a loud team and he has to catch up to our voice box.’’

Bodies in motion
Shaquille O’Neal sat out Tuesday’s practice, then played Wednesday night against the Nuggets, but he took a night off after the calf started to tighten up on him.

“I even tried to go old school, shoot it up,’’ O’Neal said. “They won’t let me.’’

It was the sixth time this season the Celtics were without O’Neal.

Rivers has had to walk a tightrope, monitoring O’Neal’s minutes while still putting together a lineup that can win.

“We want him to be healthy,’’ Rivers said. “It’s very important for him to be healthy. We want him to play as many minutes as he can.’’

O’Neal said he would try to play tomorrow in Charlotte. Rivers said he would continue to listen to O’Neal and trainer Ed Lacerte to figure out when O’Neal should play and when he would benefit from sitting out.

“We’re winning games with a ton of injuries right now, and that’s a good thing,’’ Rivers said.

The shortage on bodies forced Rivers to be creative with lineups.

In the second quarter, Rivers put Garnett and Rajon Rondo on the floor with Von Wafer, Nate Robinson, and Marquis Daniels, going ultra-small against a speedy Sixers team.

“We had a practice the other day where basically we didn’t have enough guys so we just practiced with a small lineup the whole day and, hey, we had a small lineup night,’’ Rivers said.

Glen Davis played some minutes at center.

“We had to use the lineups because we didn’t have a lot of bodies,’’ Davis said. “Everybody’s going to get their opportunity to play. Because of the matchups, Doc saw different kinds of matchups within the matchups. Doc did a great job of coaching and mixing it up.’’

For the record
The Celtics are the only team in league history to win 16 of their first 20 games for four consecutive seasons. “It’s nice,’’ Rivers said. “We don’t get a trophy for it, but it is nice.’’ Getting out to a fast start this season is big, considering the injury troubles. “The first year together, the quicker we won, the less they would talk about the stars couldn’t play together,’’ Rivers said. “This year, because of our age and our injuries, we almost have to put as much money in the bank as we can. We felt that coming into the year. We’re all healthy right now, let’s get off to a good start.’’ . . . In town for the first time since learning that longtime Sixers beat writer Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News had died after a battle with cancer last Friday, Rivers went out of his way to acknowledge one of the league’s highly regarded media members. “He did his job as good as anybody, and I hope everybody follows his lead,’’ Rivers said. “He was terrific and will be missed by the coaches and the league.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at

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