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Celtics close in on Shaq

Sides are working on one-year deal

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / August 4, 2010

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The Celtics are precariously close to adding a fourth Hall of Famer to their Big Three, setting up what will be at the very least a fascinating season.

Two NBA sources told the Globe that the Celtics are in negotiations with NBA icon Shaquille O’Neal on a one-year contract that would bring the Big Aristotle to Boston to join Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, forming perhaps the most interesting roster in recent history.

O’Neal, 38, has expressed interest in coming to Boston for weeks, though the Celtics’ interest has been measured at best. But the club had sought to make a significant frontcourt addition when it was apparent that Rasheed Wallace would retire and Kendrick Perkins would miss significant time because of anterior cruciate ligament surgery.

General manager Danny Ainge signed Jermaine O’Neal to start in place of Perkins, but the Celtics lack a true backup center. Former second-round pick Semih Erden is a 7-footer with an NBA body, but whether he could produce in a significant role is uncertain.

So the Celtics are turning to Shaquille O’Neal, who has played with three teams in the past three years and is in the twilight of his remarkable career. With Cleveland last season, O’Neal was effective against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, scoring off pick-and-rolls, rebounding, and providing a huge (literally) defensive presence.

But he comes with several detractors. He has clashed with teammates in previous stops in Orlando (Penny Hardaway), Los Angeles (Kobe Bryant), and Miami (Dwyane Wade), and the Celtics would have to temper his demands for playing time and getting the ball in key stretches.

With Garnett, Pierce, and Allen having been in the league for 12-plus years, each has at least a professional relationship with O’Neal. Garnett and O’Neal battled for years in Timberwolves-Lakers matchups, so Ainge may have to seek Garnett’s approval for such a deal.

Moreover, O’Neal clashed with Perkins during the playoffs, giving the Celtics center an ugly gash over his upper lip with an elbow in Game 1. Perkins, after being stitched up, confronted O’Neal after feeling another elbow whizzing by. The two had to be separated.

O’Neal averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, shooting 56 percent in 53 games for the Cavaliers last season. His regular season was cut short after he was slapped on the thumb by Boston’s Glen Davis during a Feb. 25 game at TD Garden. He did not return until the postseason, missing 23 games.

O’Neal was effective against Boston in the postseason, scoring 13.5 points per game, but his performance was overshadowed by the inconsistency of LeBron James, and the Cavaliers lost in six games.

The Celtics have only the veteran minimum of $1.399 million to offer, unless they facilitate a sign-and-trade deal with the Cavaliers and include Wallace’s contract. Given that O’Neal doesn’t have any substantial offers from other clubs, he may have to accept a minimum contract, hoping to make one last run at an NBA title.

O’Neal said recently on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night television show that he wants to play two more years, but many NBA teams cooled on him because of the potential divisive force he could become. With Doc Rivers experienced in massaging egos — including a year with the mercurial Wallace — the Celtics trust that O’Neal wouldn’t be a distraction.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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