A step back: Shaq can’t practice, ruled out of opener

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

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WALTHAM — The primary reason Celtics president Danny Ainge pursued and orchestrated the Kendrick Perkins trade was the impact Shaquille O’Neal had on offense. The Celtics were 33-10 before Perkins returned from knee surgery, and a majority of those games were with O’Neal a hulking figure in the middle.

The Celtics have no idea when O’Neal will return to the court because yesterday he failed miserably in his first attempt to practice since January. O’Neal merely tried to run on his ailing right leg and pulled up lame. The pain was too great. And now the Perkins trade looks even more ominous and questionable than before.

While the Oklahoma City Thunder enter their playoff series with the Denver Nuggets with a healthy Perkins as their starting center, the Celtics will open their first-round series with the New York Knicks today with Jermaine O’Neal, weeks removed from left knee surgery, as their center.

There was no grieving at the practice facility. Shaquille O’Neal hasn’t been part of the rotation since Feb. 1, save a five-minute appearance April 3 against Detroit. And although wishful thinking by the Celtics may have allowed them to dream of O’Neal running the floor with ease in the playoffs, they realized that was highly unlikely.

Men who weigh more than 300 pounds and are 39 don’t recover from leg injuries and thrust themselves into the starting lineup after just one practice. And the nature of the injury is confusing.

O’Neal initially missed 27 games because of foot and Achilles’ tendon soreness. When he returned against the Pistons, only to strain his right calf, the Celtics said the injury was not related to O’Neal’s previous injuries. But now it appears his entire lower right leg is an issue.

“He’s been making progress,’’ Ainge said. “We tried to get him out there at practice today, simulate the game as much as we could, and he’s not ready. So we don’t know when he’ll be ready, and we’ll just keep evaluating him day to day.’’

Team doctor Brian McKeon made reference to the “triceps surae complex,’’ a pair of calf muscles that connect to the heel. McKeon said the muscles can only heal with time and surgery is not required.

“It so depends on the particular athlete and what sport they do,’’ said McKeon. “This is the problem again, because it’s a blood supply issue, it’s so hard to tell. This is an area where MRIs are worthless. It’s really how the patient or athlete is feeling. It’s hard to give the exact specifics.

“He’s actually made progression every day. This is a tough injury. I was telling Danny and the coaches in the last 20 years, this is one area in medicine we’ve made no progress. It’s just time. It’s just hard to get enough healing potential in that area.’’

Coach Doc Rivers had his staff develop a game plan that included O’Neal in the offense and one that did not. O’Neal rarely traveled with the team the past two months, and during the team’s intense practice Friday, he watched from the sideline.

The consensus among NBA observers is that the Celtics need O’Neal to win a title. Ainge traded Perkins because he claimed the Celtics were better statistically with O’Neal. When Ainge consummated the deal Feb. 24, O’Neal was apparently days from returning from a three-week absence.

He has played five minutes since then. Ainge fully comprehended the risk of trusting a center who has logged nearly 50,000 minutes in his career, including postseason.

“We knew Shaq had some injuries last year,’’ Ainge said last week. “We were well aware of those. We knew the age. We knew the mileage. So you know there’s always risk in breakdown. But I feel like we have enough insurance to overcome that with Jermaine and Nenad [Krstic] and [Glen Davis] and [Kevin Garnett]. I think KG, we’ll see [him] at center against New York. I think that our depth is there.

“We’re hopeful that Shaq [can play] because we played our best basketball in the last few years with Shaq starting for us. But at the same time we know there are possibilities that he may miss a game or two, or here or there. I’m just hopeful something doesn’t happen where he’s out for the whole playoffs. That would be a blow.’’

Former NBA player Greg Anthony, now an analyst for NBA TV, said O’Neal’s impact on the Celtics’ lineup is important, even if he doesn’t produce as he did in his prime.

“I think it’s really going to be important that he plays 20 to 25 minutes during the course of the postseason,’’ Anthony said. “While [the Knicks] could present some challenges, Boston could win that series without Shaq, but I don’t think they have a chance to win a championship without him having a significant impact. And I’m not even talking statistically having an impact, but his presence on the floor and the way he allows Boston to play will be significant.

“And remember, the Celtics struggle to rebound the basketball. When you don’t have him out there, it puts everybody else in positions that they can’t play to their strength. Glen Davis is really, really good when he’s your seventh or eighth man, but when he becomes your focal point, I think that at times that can limit some of his effectiveness.’’

Jeff Van Gundy, who coached against O’Neal in dozens of games, said even at 39, he provides a necessary boost to the Celtics’ attack.

“They really need Shaquille O’Neal healthy,’’ he said. “It absolutely is going to be intriguing [how they integrate him]. The one thing that O’Neal has never gotten credit for is he is a highly intelligent player. And he knows how to play with other great players. Frankly, it’s going to come down to health.’’

So the Celtics are focusing on alternatives. Jermaine O’Neal is healthy but he played in just 24 games this season because of left knee problems. Krstic has shown flashes but has struggled with confidence and defensive breakdowns.

“Everybody’s that’s suited up has got to be ready to play,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “We want the big fella healthy, we want him out there to give us a boost, but the guys out there playing, that’s all we can worry about right now. We can’t use [Shaq] as an excuse. We won games without the big fella in the middle. The guys that are going to be out there, that’s the guys that matters until Shaq gets healthy. When things don’t go right, we have more than enough in that locker room to win the series.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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