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Stuck in neutral

O’Neal’s health improving, but Celtics want him fully healed before return

It’s been more than a month (Feb. 1) since Shaquille O’Neal joined Paul Pierce on the floor. It’s been more than a month (Feb. 1) since Shaquille O’Neal joined Paul Pierce on the floor. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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While it looked as if Shaquille O’Neal, at 39 years and 1 day old, could give the Celtics 15 to 20 minutes a game, he is being advised to return to the lineup only when he’s 100 percent healthy.

With 1,206 regular-season games logged by that 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound body, 100 percent is relative. But Celtics management has decided not to bring O’Neal back to the court until he’s pain-free, even if he’s able to play.

He was all smiles yesterday at the Boston’s Children’s Museum, where he celebrated his birthday with dozens of kids and a cake suitable for a man of his girth. And while O’Neal has exceeded his expectations with the community, Celtics fans are beginning to wonder whether he will return to the club, especially with Kendrick Perkins in Oklahoma City.

O’Neal hasn’t played since Feb. 1 at Sacramento. He was shut down with a sore right Achilles’ tendon, and that was after he missed games with a strained adductor muscle and various leg injuries. Celtics coach Doc Rivers claimed O’Neal was lean and in desirable playing condition after working out most of last month near his Florida home.

Yesterday, O’Neal looked to be in good shape and said Rivers and team doctor Brian McKeon have mandated that his foot be completely sound before he steps on the floor again. And he is following their orders.

“Hopefully in the next week [I’ll be back], they want me back at 100 percent,’’ he said. “I tried to run on it the other day and it felt pretty good but I took a step back and I’m going to get back out there in a few days. I don’t really feel like I’m 39.’’

When team president Danny Ainge dealt Perkins and Nate Robinson for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green, he said the team was relying on O’Neal to produce in the postseason. The Celtics have managed to survive — going 9-4 in his absence — and they would like O’Neal to work his way back into the offense and allow players such as Krstic to assume their slated roles in the rotation.

O’Neal said he considered the possibility of a cortisone shot to return earlier, but Rivers and McKeon disallowed that idea. Rivers expressed frustration Sunday when he said trainer Ed Lacerte told him not to expect O’Neal back “any time soon.’’

“If I can walk, I can play, and I asked many times to shoot it up and you know, they refuse,’’ O’Neal said. “And the Big Three said they want me at 100 percent healthy, so I’m getting there.’’

When asked his condition, O’Neal said he is about 85 percent.

“I have a little Achilles’ soreness, it gets better, it comes back, it gets better, it comes back,’’ he said. “It’s better. Dr. McKeon is doing a great job. I’ve been working out twice a day, getting treatment. It’ll be right.’’

O’Neal has avoided the spotlight since his injury, attending games but watching from the locker room and ducking out of practice before the media is allowed in. He had not yet discussed the Perkins trade. The two were adversaries while O’Neal was in Cleveland but had become close friends.

Perkins missed the first 43 games while recovering from knee surgery, and O’Neal replaced him in the lineup. The duo played in just three games together, with O’Neal getting the starts and Perkins still working himself into basketball shape.

Now the responsibility of being the team’s enforcer lies with O’Neal. The Perkins trade did not go unnoticed.

“Perkins has meant a lot to this city and he really helped them get [championship] No. 17 and we’re going to miss him,’’ O’Neal said. “He was my main man. Everybody loves Perk. I love him. We became real good friends and I congratulated him on his new deal. But this is a business. He’s going to be missed. We had a great time this year being on the same team.’’

The Celtics have a stretch of four games in six days beginning tomorrow against the Clippers, giving the newcomers more time to develop chemistry. And it seems as long as the team keeps registering wins, the Celtics’ brass is content to allow O’Neal time to heal.

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

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