Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Shaquille O'Neal looked on from the bench during the Boston Celtic's game against the Knicks on April 17. O'Neal has only played 5 minutes since Feb. 1, and his absence may significantly hurt the Celtics' championship hopes.
In the twilight of his career, Shaquille O’Neal has evolved from the game’s most dominating force to a big man for hire with diminishing but effective skills, if he is healthy. That “if” is now confronting theCeltics, who may have prematurely placed too much hope in returning to the N.B.A. Finals on O’Neal.
O’Neal, who turned 39 last month, is the league’s eldest statesman. For much of the season he has spent more time in a jacket than a jersey, a status that has continued into the first-round playoff series with the Knicks, proving New York is not the only team with serious injury concerns.
He has played only five minutes since Feb. 1 while trying to return from a calf strain. The Celtics insist he is close to returning and disclose his status before each playoff game. Citing one N.B.A. source, The Eagle Tribune reportedWednesday that the Celtics were preparing for O’Neal to be unavailable for the playoffs, but Coach Doc Rivers refuted such speculation.
“I’m worried about getting him right and healthy,” Rivers told reporters at Friday’s shootaround. “There’s no strategic game plan for not playing him. There’s a medical game plan for not playing him. Once he can play, he can play.”
Although the Celtics, who lead the series, two games to none, ruled out O’Neal from playing Friday in Game 3, he traveled with the team to New York. Rivers usually allows injured players who are close to playing on road trips.
O’Neal has been quiet through much of his rehabilitation. “I don’t want to talk,” he told CSNNE.com Friday. “Let the players talk. I’m just trying to get back.”
He signed a two-year contract with Boston last summer, but this season’s frequent injuries may foreshadow his retirement. O’Neal is fifth on the N.B.A.’s career scoring list with 28,596 points. His former teammate Kobe Bryant is next with 27,868 points.
Rivers does not want to concede the parallel, but the will-he-or-won’t-he situation is similar to Boston’s playoff run two years ago when Kevin Garnett missed the final 25 games of the regular season and the playoffs with a knee sprain. The Celtics maintained hope that Garnett would return in the playoffs, especially after a spirited first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls. But the Magic ousted the Celtics without Garnett in the next round.
Boston saw enough of O’Neal in the first half of the season to trade away the popular Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with Nate Robinson, for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, and break up the starting five that won the 2008 N.B.A. title.
O’Neal’s impact would be less valuable against a team like the Knicks, who possess no interior threat from the center position. If the Celtics advance, they would need him in a series against a team like the Orlando Magic (Dwight Howard) or Lakers (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol).