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Onus is on O’Neals

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 30, 2010

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — As Kevin Garnett screamed in frustration, limping on the leg that he has so feverishly tried to revive over the past 18 months, the pain in his voice, the sweat mixed with tears, should have been a message to those healthy big men who have spent this season on the inactive list.

Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal will have to compensate for Garnett, who sustained a muscle injury near the right calf and will undergo an MRI today in Boston. While coach Doc Rivers said he is “not that concerned,’’ the injury could cost Garnett a few games, or even a few weeks, given the cautious nature of the organization regarding injuries.

The onus is now on the O’Neals to live up to their contracts. Jermaine O’Neal played one of his more productive games of the season during last night’s 104-92 loss to the Pistons, scoring 7 points and grabbing six rebounds in 23 minutes. Shaquille O’Neal stayed out of the foul trouble that has plagued him in recent games, not being whistled at all in 16 minutes, and scored 5 points.

Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, who dubbed himself the “Ticket Stub’’ last season when he replaced the injured Garnett, “The Big Ticket,’’ in the lineup during a January absence, will be relied upon the most, however. Davis is accustomed to playing starter’s minutes and views himself as a starter-in-waiting. For the Celtics to survive this stretch without their spiritual leader and defensive stalwart, the team’s big men have to improve their play.

No more nagging injuries. Better rebounding and defense, and less foul trouble.

The schedule is softer until a late-January trip to the West Coast. Before that swing, the Celtics play 11 of 14 at home with teams such as Toronto (twice), Charlotte, Cleveland, Minnesota, Sacramento, Detroit, Washington, and Houston on the docket. San Antonio, Orlando, and Utah also await, but those games are at TD Garden.

So the Celtics are officially in survival mode. With Rajon Rondo expected to return tomorrow against the Hornets, the offense will look more familiar and not be the rag-tag operation of the past few games.

The Celtics withstood life without Garnett last season. They were 4-6 when he was kicked in the right knee area by Golden State’s Monta Ellis in late December and missed nearly a month. Davis matured during his increased minutes, although it was Rasheed Wallace who stepped into the starting lineup.

Davis should get his chance beginning tomorrow and the impending free agent will have a bigger stage to prove his worth. And he realizes the significance of this opportunity for the team.

“I’m going to step my game up as much as possible for my team,’’ he said. “This ain’t nothing I ain’t used to. I’ve been in this situation before and I’ve done a good job at it. It helps because I know what to expect. I know what I can do. I know what my limitations are. I know what the team needs me to do out there.

“I’m not Kevin, but at the same time, I do bring something to the table.’’

Davis won’t be the problem, however. The Celtics desperately need quality minutes from Jermaine O’Neal, now that he has recovered sufficiently from his left knee injury. He looked last night as if he is getting comfortable with the team concept and with the limitations of his body.

The most pressing message Rivers has tried to relate to O’Neal is that he is not the player he once was, especially offensively, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be effective in stretches. He is still a 7-footer with skills, and the ability to rebound. While he cannot replace Garnett as the anchor of the defense, he can emerge as a factor at that end of the floor.

“I think now it’s almost going to have to be a different gauge,’’ he said. “I am going to have to turn the knob a little bit because they need a little bit more offensively to help the team. Defensively, I gotta be better than I was the game before. That’s just really my goal. I know the team has had me on a set schedule, but that’s going to be tweaked a little bit so my focus and my preparation has to be a little bit better.’’

With the Heat charging, the Magic revived after two major trades, and the Bulls hot with the return of Carlos Boozer, there are plenty of challengers looking to capitalize on any Celtics slippage and take the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics have enough leeway, with just six losses and that softer schedule, to pick up some valuable wins while Garnett treats his calf, rests the remainder of his battered body, and gets ready for the second half.

Meanwhile, center Kendrick Perkins said following the Orlando loss Christmas Day that his workouts as he recovers from knee surgery are going so well that he may return some time in January. Which is exactly what the Celtics need, another rugged big body to provide depth.

There is no question the Celtics can withstand this latest setback, although Rivers had that “Just when I thought I couldn’t get any worse’’ look on his face following the game. But after a night of reflection and perhaps some positive news after today’s MRI, the Celtics will move on. They have to.

Garnett will return as quickly as he can, but his frontcourt mates need to offer support by elevating their games. If they do, the damage will be minimal.

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

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