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O’Neal isn’t starting anything

Shaq still content with Celtics role

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 2, 2011

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SACRAMENTO – With his trademark smile and neat tuxedo, Shaquille O’Neal said all the right things in August, when he likely believed he would seize the starting center position with the Celtics and hang 15 points and 10 rebounds a night on opponents.

There was a perception he was being coy, and the moment he was relegated to an afterthought, Shaq would begin chirping and alienate himself as he has in a few of his previous stops.

Yesterday would have been one of those prime moments to gripe about his lack of touches and his scoreless game in Los Angeles on the season’s biggest stage. Kobe Bryant outscored his former friend and current rival, 41-0. After one 3-point play, Bryant patted Shaq on the side as if to say, “Hey big guy, you used to be able to stop that.’’

But no more. Shaq finished the Celtics’ 109-96 victory with just six rebounds and five fouls, relegated to the bench as Boston pulled away in the fourth quarter. It could have served as an embarrassing moment, a benchmark moment for his decline.

The Celtics beat the Lakers and Shaq didn’t score.

But it’s February and Shaquille O’Neal is still saying all the right things. His ego remains large but a month from his 39th birthday, O’Neal understands he is taking the same path as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Robert Parish as centers who faded later in their career but still helped teams win. O’Neal feels part of the Celtics’ effort and he is completely on board, a good sign for team chemistry.

“Winning is all that matters,’’ he said in his whisper voice yesterday morning at ARCO Arena. “It’s not my role to take a lot of shots, so no, I’m not frustrated. All the stuff that usually matters, I done already been there and done that.’’

The final days of O’Neal as a starting center are approaching. Kendrick Perkins is working himself into shape and his role is expanding, and he will join the Big Four to give the Celtics their original starting five again, and O’Neal will join the bench and play with Nate Robinson and Glen Davis. It’s a far cry from Bryant and Dwyane Wade, but O’Neal understood that would be the job when he signed a two-year contract.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers was brutally honest with O’Neal about his declining skills and ability to contribute, and he has been pleasantly surprised with O’Neal’s ability to score and rebound in stretches. And that’s all the Celtics require. Stardom is no longer necessary.

“I don’t want to talk about offense because it doesn’t matter to me,’’ O’Neal said. “My job is to rebound and block shots and just try to make the right play. You are not going to worry about getting a 38-year-old the ball when you’ve got [the Big Three]. That’s just keeping it real. When I do get my shots, I shoot at a high clip.’’

O’Neal is not getting the opportunity to fully contribute because of foul trouble and in his later years, his size is becoming a factor when it comes to remaining in games. During the second half of the Lakers game, O’Neal was dashing to gain position in the key when former teammate Derek Fisher stood at the top of the key, below O’Neal’s sight, and waited for the impact.

O’Neal never saw Fisher and was charged with an offensive foul. It was a veteran trick by Fisher, but also a testament that what made O’Neal such an unstoppable force in his prime is now his biggest obstacle: his massive size.

“I should have just [expletive] dove on his [expletive],’’ O’Neal said. “But my things with the zebra is that you just have to call it both ways. There’s a lot of tough whistles out there, but we won the game.

“I’ve been out there playing 20 years and there’s a lot of tough whistles. That’s what teams are going to have to do to try to beat us, little tactics like that. But it didn’t work. It’s all about the win.

“The next time he does it, I’m going to fall on his [expletive].’’

O’Neal realizes his place in the game and understands he will go down as perhaps the most dominant center of his lifetime. And it will be even more rewarding if he finishes his career with a fifth ring, and with experience and age comes restraint and humility.

Shaq has lost a step. He is no longer an elite athlete for his size and years of running on those tree-trunk legs have caused nagging injuries.

But limited minutes, a winning atmosphere, and encouraging teammates have kept his confidence high. He is an important part of this team and there have been nights this season where he saved the Celtics.

Those nights just don’t come as often as they used to. And O’Neal has no problem acknowledging his decline.

But as he learned from Abdul-Jabbar, Parish, Robinson and Chamberlain, the man he calls his father, there is life after dominance.

“It’s somebody else’s turn,’’ he said. “And I’m OK with that. I have done enough in this game. I just want to win. It’s all about the win.’’

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

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