For five minutes Sunday night, everything went according to plan. Shaquille O’Neal was back on the court, throwing his big body at anything in a Pistons uniform and scoring effortlessly on the block. He even pulled out a nifty reverse layup that had everyone at TD Garden in shock.
Unfortunately, the real surprise was still to come. Just a few seconds into his second stint on the court, O’Neal pulled up hobbling at midcourt. He limped to the bench and used a bench support to steady himself. O’Neal then staggered into the tunnel and stayed there. At one point a wheelchair was brought out but he wouldn’t get in it. His night was done and the Celtics' playoff chances, while not quite extinct, flashed before their eyes.
The word from the team is that he has a strained right calf and this latest injury has nothing to do with the Achilles injury that kept him out for two months. O’Neal left the premises after the Celtics 101-90 victory over the Pistons (click here for a full recap), which left Doc Rivers to provide some answers, not that there were many to give.
“The update is that it’s not the same injury,” Rivers said. “It has nothing to do with the Achilles. It’s not a bad strain, but it’s a strain.”
How long will he be out?
“I don’t know, is the answer,” he said. “I don’t think very long honestly. That’s what [team doctor Brian] McKeon and [the medical staff] thought, that it’s very minor. Scary, more than anything. We’ll see.”
Will this affect your plans to play him if he can come back during the regular season?
“I don’t know what to do, honestly. My inclination is not because he needs to play and we have to play at full tilt in six games, so I don’t know the answer yet.”
There is no plan right now ... and the one they had was tenuous even before O’Neal’s leg gave out. Rivers was going to get him on the court for three or four games just to get his timing down more than anything. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Now, there’s not even that.
Rivers isn’t hedging when he says he doesn’t know what he’s going to do because he truly doesn’t. If Shaq can play, he’ll play. If not, they’ll go into the playoffs with what they have.
At the moment, that includes Nenad Krstic, who may be ready for Tuesday’s game with Philadelphia after suffering a bone bruise, and Jermaine O’Neal who started in his third game back from knee surgery. The obvious follow-up: Is that enough?
“I think so,” Rivers said. “We have to have one of the O’Neal brothers, then Krstic is important too. He has to be healthy. We have that, we do have size, but we have to have one, I’d take two, but we have to have one of the O’Neal brothers.”
The uncertainty over Shaq has hovered over this team for months, and it only grew stronger once Kendrick Perkins was traded in late February. Part of the rationale for the deal was that the Celtics played better when Shaq was in the lineup, but days became weeks and weeks became months and here we are. Whether he’s able to return or not is anyone’s guess. The injury may be minor, but there is no such thing as a minor leg injury when you’re 39 years old and well over 300 pounds.
“I don’t know,” Paul Pierce said when he was asked if he was relieved that Shaq’s injury was a calf strain. “When you get to that age, those ones tend to hurt a little bit longer.”
With Shaq gone (again), everything is up in the air. Rotations? Rivers knows who he wants to use in the playoffs but there really isn’t enough time to work that out on the floor.
“We’re not getting that set,” Rivers acknowledged. “That’s going to be just tough. What we have to do is get everyone on the same page, rhythm-wise. As far as rotations, I know it. It’s set. But we just got to get it together. We’ll be ready. If everyone’s healthy, I can tell you, I know it. I just haven’t seen it.”
They saw it on Sunday for five minutes. It was as close to perfect as they could have hoped for, considering the circumstances. Now, it’s once again a guessing game.
Here are three more points:
SILVER LINING: NENAD KRSTIC IS OK
Before the game, Nenad Krstic was sitting at his locker and he seemed, well ... happy. It’s been a while since he has looked relaxed and smiling, but he had reason to feel that way. The tests on his knee revealed a bone bruise. There’s some swelling and pain, and he’s not able to fully extend it yet, but he initially thought that it would be much worse.
“I was scared,” he said. “I obviously had pain, but I was scared that it was more serious.”
The injury happened in the Spurs game when Krstic was running full speed and came to a stop. Someone pushed him from behind and his knee buckled. At first, he thought he had damaged his meniscus and that he might be out for the rest of the year.
By Sunday night he was contemplating trying to play, but now he’ll try to get through Monday’s practice and hopefully be back for Tuesday’s game with the 76ers. “This is really nothing right now,” he said.
That’s incredibly good news for the Celtics who desperately need Krstic for the playoffs. If Shaq can’t play, he’ll have to play the majority of minutes at center. Jermaine O’Neal will help and Glen Davis will play there as well, especially in the fourth quarter, but Krstic not only has to play, he has to play like he did when he first arrived.
He’ll get the chance to recover his game, and that’s more than he could have said 48 hours ago.
RAY ALLEN NEEDS MORE SHOTS
Over his last seven games, Ray Allen has averaged exactly nine shots per game. That’s not enough.
The Celtics started off Sunday’s game by going to Allen and he buried a jumper, but he had to come out of the game after colliding with Rip Hamilton, which opened up a cut on the back of his head. He finished with 13 points on only six shots.
“Right now, attempt-wise, I’m not getting a lot,” he said before the game. “But I can’t say I’m not relaxed because on the floor I feel good. I feel like I’ve felt all year. Nothing about me feels any different. Nothing about me has changed.”
Asked if things on the team had changed recently, Allen said he has noticed a difference, but he was careful not to get into specifics. “It’s hard to say. I’ve noticed a change,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve felt this way for a couple of weeks. We are making it harder on ourselves.”
More than anyone else on the team Allen’s shots comes off ball movement and screens. Again, Allen was diplomatic when pressed on the details. “I believe when you’re not scoring it has everything to do with everything,” he said. “We can set better screens. I can make better cuts. You get better stops on defense you get better looks, so it’s a trickle-down effect. It’s not just one thing. It’s everything.”
Now that Rajon Rondo has been revitalized, getting Allen more involved is the final piece of getting the big four back on track in time for the playoffs.
JEFF GREEN CAN BE MORE ASSERTIVE
There are moments when Jeff Green is a dynamic player and there are long stretches where he becomes forgotten. It’s not an easy assignment for Green, whose minutes and role fluctuates on a nightly basis, but it may be time for him to force the issue.
He’s had only two double-digit scoring games in his last nine outings and had only five shots against the Pistons. “I think he’s too nice,” Rivers said. “He’s trying to please the other guys on the floor.”
In the playoffs Green would stand to benefit from a set rotation and role, which he should have from series to series. Rivers would also like to see Green rebound more, but that has been a weakness in his game since he came into the league.
His ability is obvious, and much-needed for a second unit that lacks a definitive scorer. He just needs to play up to those talents.