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O’Neal has his motives

Shaquille O’Neal threw his weight around against the Raptors, going 5 for 5 and finishing with 16 points and nine boards. Shaquille O’Neal threw his weight around against the Raptors, going 5 for 5 and finishing with 16 points and nine boards. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 27, 2010

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Shaquille O’Neal has a bucket list at age 38. He realizes the end is not only near, but fast approaching. If your name isn’t Robert Parish or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, centers don’t play well into their 40s, and O’Neal’s worst nightmare is tarnishing his well-constructed image by playing too long.

There was concern he would do that here in Boston when he signed a two-year contract. It would be Parish as a Charlotte Hornet or Hakeem Olajuwon as a Toronto Raptor.

O’Neal plans to write a more attractive ending to his career story. He was strong again last night against the Raptors, leading the Celtics with powerful and productive inside play as they ran past Toronto, 110-101. He finished with 16 points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes, setting the tone in the early going.

Last Sunday against the Raptors, the Celtics gained an early lead with jump shots and never consistently established the post game in a 102-101 loss. But in the past three games — all victories — O’Neal has made early statements with his inside dominance, just like the old days.

But these aren’t the 1990s, and O’Neal can no longer go 36 minutes and finish with 30 and 20.

His effectiveness will come in spurts, evidenced the first quarter last night when coach Doc Rivers removed him from the game after 6 minutes and 21 seconds despite having 5 points and two rebounds.

The Celtics are managing O’Neal’s minutes and he’s not fighting Rivers’s decisions. Rivers asked him during the preseason how many minutes he was prepared to play, and O’Neal said as many as was required. Rivers nodded, fully realizing 25 would be the limit.

O’Neal is averaging 22.7 minutes per game and has provided the Celtics everything they could have hoped through 16 games. A key to his resurgence is that he arrived without his Shaq-Fu attitude. While every superstar’s impact eventually fades, it is up to the star to determine how he wants his career to conclude.

Some never recognize that their skills have eroded, while others decide to reinvent themselves as someone who can help their team despite diminishing talents. O’Neal said he decided to move to Sudbury to avoid the allure of the Boston nightlife and concentrate fully on basketball. During his postgame interview, two of his sons were milling around the locker room, soaking in the new environment.

In his younger days, O’Neal said he would have capitalized on the Friday nightlife after a victory, especially with the weekend off. Not now.

“I’m on a mission: 1825,’’ he said. “The city wants [championship No.] 18. Doc and [the players] want two [rings], and I’m trying to get five [titles]. I think about the city of Boston and what we’re trying to do.’’

O’Neal reported to camp in superb shape and that helped gain Rivers’s confidence. The coach said he was unsure of what to expect from his aging center. The reviews he received from O’Neal’s previous coaches were mixed. The consensus was that O’Neal would thrive in the right environment with the right motivation.

He wouldn’t mesh with a group of younger players, most of whom were probably in grade school when “Kazaam’’ was released, which is why Atlanta offered just the league minimum. And Hawks fans, by the way, didn’t exactly enjoy watching O’Neal, who owns a home in the Atlanta area, dominate during Monday’s 99-76 win.

But the Celtics appear to be the perfect landing spot. The rest of the veterans are serious enough to remind O’Neal that there is an unquestioned team goal and no player rises above that. And O’Neal is personable and affable enough to remind his teammates to smell the roses and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

The Celtics tried getting that seriousness across to Rasheed Wallace last season, but he never took the regular season seriously and ended his downward spiral by having to ask out of Game 7 of the Finals due to exhaustion.

Although the players enjoyed Wallace as a teammate for the most part, he never completely bought into the team concept. O’Neal has been the antithesis of that, and it appears to be a perfect blend so far.

“I’m in shape, I live on a farm, no nightlife,’’ he said. “No messing around. I think a lot of times when I was younger, I would wear myself out with non-basketball activities. Being that I live an hour away from the fun, I just stay home and rest and watch TV and I just take it easy.’’

The experiment has worked so far, but there’s still plenty of time for it to turn wayward. Yet the Celtics have enough leadership and O’Neal has enough peers to keep him intact. And O’Neal wants nothing to do with damaging his legacy, so both sides are deeply invested.

“I didn’t know what to expect and I’d love to tell you I did,’’ Rivers said. “I saw him last year, there were games in Cleveland where he looked pretty good and then there were games that he didn’t. I didn’t know. I knew we were getting size. We’d be in trouble [without him]. We’d be in a lot of trouble. He’s been a very good team player. All the other stuff [scoring] is just a benefit of doing his job.’’

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

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