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Celtics 101, Pistons 90

Shaq’s calf injury spoils Celtics’ fun in win

They triumph, but Shaq is hurt again

Detroit’s Ben Gordon steals a bounce pass attempt by a fellow UConn alum, the Celtics’ Ray Allen, in the first half. Detroit’s Ben Gordon steals a bounce pass attempt by a fellow UConn alum, the Celtics’ Ray Allen, in the first half. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 4, 2011

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It was Camelot. Shaquille O’Neal was running the court like a 25-year-old. Jermaine O’Neal was picking off rebounds with zest and Nenad Krstic was resting his sore right knee but is expected to return tomorrow night.

The sight could have made Celtics coach Doc Rivers tear up a little, having a healthy frontcourt, but good health doesn’t last in Boston. Shaquille O’Neal left last night’s 101-90 win over the Pistons after playing five minutes and 29 seconds and his teammates lumbered their way to a much-needed victory.

O’Neal was diagnosed with a right calf strain, after there were fears he may have torn his Achilles’ tendon. As scary as the injury appeared — O’Neal had trouble walking to the locker room and knocked over some items in anger en route — Rivers said the strain is minor.

Kevin Garnett and Von Wafer each missed time this season with calf strains. Garnett missed nine games in late December and early January, and Wafer missed 13 games in March. Rivers said O’Neal’s injury was not nearly as severe as Wafer’s, leaving hope O’Neal can return before the regular season concludes April 13.

“Well, ‘I don’t know,’ is the answer,’’ Rivers said when asked how long O’Neal would be sidelined. “I don’t think very long, honestly. That’s what [team doctor Brian] McKeon and them thought, that it’s very minor. Scary more than any thing. And you know, I’m sure with the calf that he probably thought Achilles’ right away. But we’ll see.’’

O’Neal dressed and left the locker room before reporters were allowed in, walking with a slight limp after making his first appearance since Feb. 1. He was stellar in his first stint, scoring 6 points in 4:40 after entering with 4:43 left in the first period.

All was well until he started the second quarter. After Jeff Green blocked a Jason Maxiell shot to begin a fast break, the trailing O’Neal pulled up at about midcourt in pain and motioned for a timeout. He was helped to the tunnel but he stopped a few feet into the trek and the Celtics brought out a wheelchair for him. But he rejected that and finally limped to the locker room.

“That wasn’t good, to see him [like that],’’ Garnett said. “He’s been working his behind [off] to get back to this point. He had some momentum going, he definitely gave us a spark. It was good to see him out there.

“If you know Shaq, you know he is always in spirits and to see him go like that was tough. It’s minor but he’s a huge dude. Hopefully he can bounce back from this. Leg injuries are not easy. We are just hoping for the best at this point.’’

The Celtics don’t expect O’Neal to miss extensive time but there is a great level of uncertainty since he missed two months with foot and Achilles’ tendon injuries. The Celtics were briefly back to the good old days with O’Neal running the floor and grabbing Rajon Rondo lobs for layups. He even thrilled the crowd with an up-and-under layup followed by a tumble to the floor. And that came after he lunged into the crowd behind the Detroit basket chasing a loose ball.

The big guy was back, but only briefly.

“It felt like pausing time, you know, it felt like just having his presence out there was big,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “Even just having him for a few minutes, definitely a plus out there. It’s tough.’’

After O’Neal left the Celtics managed to take control and they led for the final 21 minutes of the game.

A 15-2 run in the final 4:50 of the third quarter widened their lead to 16, and the Celtics spent the final quarter avoiding those same lulls that plagued them in losses to Indiana and Atlanta. Detroit cut the lead to 9 at the 8:32 mark of the fourth but Ray Allen scored 4 points in a 10-4 run to restore order.

Pierce scored 22 points in 32 minutes and Rondo handed out 14 assists as the Celtics’ ball movement was crisp. Garnett tallied 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting, going against adversary Charlie Villanueva, who didn’t show much interest in defending.

The Pistons led, 29-26, after one quarter but the Celtics began to increase their defensive pressure and Pierce took over for a stretch, scoring 9 straight points for a 49-39 lead with 2:15 left in the half.

Pierce scored 14 points in the first 24 minutes on just four shots. Once again, though, the Celtics lost their focus and allowed Will Bynum to drain a 3-pointer and then complete a conventional 3-point play. The Pistons ended the half on a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to 1, ending what had been an impressive second quarter on a downer.

With Shaquille O’Neal out and Krstic a game or two from returning with a right knee bone bruise, the Celtics were thin in the frontcourt. Jermaine O’Neal played 18 minutes in his third game back from left knee surgery. He grabbed six rebounds as the Celtics responded to getting blitzed on the boards against Atlanta by outrebounding the Pistons, 37-26.

But that was hardly the storyline. The Celtics collectively wondered if or when Shaquille O’Neal would help their effort to win an 18th NBA title. And no one had any answers.

“I don’t know what to do, honestly,’’ Rivers said about possibly shutting down O’Neal until the postseason. “My inclination is not, because we need — he needs to play. We have to play at full tilt in six or seven [games] — you know what I’m saying? But I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve been concerned all year with [injuries] to our whole team. So I don’t know. Let’s hope he can play.’’

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

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