Return of O’Neals? Uncertainty times two
With each passing day, it seems Celtics coach Doc Rivers is becoming more and more resigned to the idea that there is no clear return date for Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, only small signs that the two will return before season’s end.
Shaquille began shooting yesterday for the first time since going down with an inflamed right Achilles’ tendon Feb. 4. He has missed 18 games. The Celtics had expected him back in the lineup after the All-Star break, but the date was continually pushed back.
“I don’t even know what the time frame is,’’ Rivers said. “But the fact that he’s on the floor means sooner than later, I hope.’’
With just 16 games left in the season, the Celtics are counting on one if not both O’Neals to return for the playoff run. They traded starting center Kendrick Perkins at the deadline, ostensibly gambling that the O’Neals would be healthy.
Jermaine has been out since Jan. 12 after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.
Asked when he wants to see his big men back on the floor, Rivers quipped, “A month ago, if you want to be honest.’’
Because Shaq has 18-plus seasons under his belt, Rivers will continue to be cautious with him.
“We’re still not going to put him out there unless he’s right, because that makes no sense,’’ Rivers said. “You put him out there and he gets hurt and now you don’t have him at all.
“Clearly I would have loved to have him back two or three weeks ago. I would have loved to have our whole entire bench back. I thought that would be a good time, right at the All-Star break. But it just hasn’t worked out that way.’’
Rivers said Jermaine O’Neal has been training and checking in with team trainer Ed Lacerte and is expected to return in April, but the coach doesn’t know what to expect when he does.
“I have no idea,’’ Rivers said. “I haven’t seen him much this year. Right before he was injured, he was playing terrific, he kind of bought into what we needed him to do. He was rebounding, he was taking charges, he was blocking shots. Then he went down.
“So if he could get back to what he was right before he left, then we’re going to get a lot out of him.’’
Still, it is unclear what he could contribute having played just 17 games this season.
“Even from a player’s prospective, I’ve never missed that much and come back to play,’’ Rivers said. “So I don’t know how that happens. Some guys do it. Some guys have been successful.
“I will say it’s easier for a big to do it than a guard.
“Listen, if he can give us five hard fouls — I mean really hard fouls — and block a couple shots and rebound, we’ll take that. But I don’t even know if timing-wise he can do that or not.’’
West is a go The season has been a game of red light, green light for Delonte West, who returned to the lineup last night after missing eight games with a sprained right ankle.
That was after missing 39 games with a broken right wrist. And that was after starting the season with a 10-game league suspension.
“It’s been interesting,’’ said West, who played 17 minutes and had 2 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in the win over the Pacers.
He comes back to a team that has overhauled its second unit and needs him to be the floor leader for a group that’s still jelling.
If anything, he and newly acquired point guard Carlos Arroyo will spell Rajon Rondo, who has been playing 38 minutes a night.
“With Delonte back, you see he’s out there runnning the team,’’ Glen Davis said. “He’s a floor general and he definitely helped us out there tonight.’’
“I have fresh legs from the summertime still,’’ West said. “I’ve just been sitting around waiting for my opportunity to get out there. I’m just glad we got the win.’’
Shooting blanks Rondo took just two shots, missed them both, and although he dished out eight assists, he’s been in a slump that goes back to March 4, when he shot 3 for 11 against Golden State albeit with 16 assists. He’s shot 41 percent from the floor since. He’s 2 for 18 in the past three games and he hasn’t gone for double-digit assists since the Warriors game. “There’s times you miss shots and you start thinking about it a little bit,’’ Rivers said. “But I’m telling you, everybody, even great shooters go through it. So coming into the game, I didn’t say a word to him about it. I’m really not concerned. I think when you make all the changes we’ve made, everyone’s rhythm is thrown off a little bit. But he’s getting it back.’’ Rondo has dealt with plantar fasciitis all season as well as a sprained left ankle going back to the Dec. 15 win in New York. “Rondo’s playing hurt,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “He’s giving us everything he has and he’s grinding. [There’s] nights when he’s playing countless minutes for us and he’s not playing washed-up guys. They’re coming at him and he knows that. But everybody’s banged up and [Rondo’s] no different from that.’’ . . . Before last night’s game, Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel flashed back to his days as the Celtics’ video coordinator during the Rick Pitino days. “I’d be lying if I said it was just another game,’’ he said. “It’s very special coming here and coaching in this building. It was my first job coming out of college. “Everybody remembers their first job in the real world, right? I remember stepping foot in Boston and hopping on the T and coming here.’’ After working for three years under Jim O’Brien in Indiana, Vogel took over head coaching duties when the Pacers fired O’Brien in January. O’Brien was on the call when team president Larry Bird offered Vogel the job. “It was an emotional roller coaster,’’ Vogel said.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.