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Good time for Shaq’s big game

Injuries, fouls left large hole in the frontcourt

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By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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Shaquille O’Neal knew he might be in for a long night.

To start with, O’Neal knew that Kevin Garnett (strained calf) and Jermaine O’Neal (sore knee) were unavailable against the Charlotte Bobcats. Then Semih Erden started getting whistled at a foul-a-minute pace against the Bobcats’ quicker inside players.

But O’Neal displayed his old touch around both baskets. He scored 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting — and 3 for 3 from the line — and added five rebounds and five blocks in the Celtics’ 99-94 victory.

And O’Neal also showed surprising endurance, playing a season-high 35 minutes.

“I knew that whatever happened I was going to be ready,’’ O’Neal said. “I’ve been in foul trouble and haven’t really played a lot of minutes, so there was really no excuse for me to be tired. I just came out and got a few more touches and just did what I do.’’

O’Neal not only used size and strength, he brought back his finesse spin move and even had a textbook assist to Glen Davis on a backdoor cut early in the second half.

The Celtics struggled to get their running game going, but when it slowed, O’Neal produced. O’Neal was the only Celtic to convert a field goal over a 9:19 stretch spanning the opening two quarters, as they squandered a 6-point lead. However, they stayed in contention as an O’Neal hoop cut the deficit to 31-30 with 7:52 remaining in the half.

O’Neal played a strong role as the Celtics set the tone to open the second half. He dunked off a Rajon Rondo feed, found Davis for his layup, then landed on Kwame Brown to draw a foul on an alley-oop from Rondo, the Celtics converting off the resulting inbounds play.

“If I get the touches and get the calls most of the time, the outcome is going to be like that,’’ O’Neal said. “It’s not really my role here, I’m just here to do what Doc [Rivers] asks me to do.’’

One thing the Celtics coaches were hoping for was for O’Neal to avoid foul trouble. Paul Pierce was limited to 24 minutes and Erden just eight minutes because of excessive fouls.

“You know, a lot of times I get fouls helping out, so I’ve got to be selective,’’ O’Neal said. “I knew we were a big man short, so . . . [some layups] I knew I had to let go. I was just trying to play smart.’’

Said Rivers: “One thing is we did was keep them out of the paint, for the most part, on drives. Shaq doesn’t get in foul trouble guarding his own guy, he gets in foul trouble guarding someone else’s guy, because they got beat.

“With Shaq, it’s just too many minutes. You know, we had no choice. It’s not a big deal for one night, I don’t worry about it. And, we don’t play again until Monday [against Orlando], so that’s nice.’’

But O’Neal is not likely to get much of a break. Jermaine O’Neal’s injury could lead to a long-term absence. Garnett could return against Orlando, and Kendrick Perkins will not be at full speed for a while once he recovers from knee surgery.

“It would be detrimental,’’ O’Neal said of the absence of Jermaine O’Neal. “It will be up to Semih and Luke [Harangody] to step up. Just got to go with it. Perk will be back in a couple weeks, so we’ll be fine.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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