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Krstic to play in Russia

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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Weighing the possibility of an NBA lockout against the security of playing closer to his home country, Celtics center Nenad Krstic has decided to play overseas next season for CSKA Moscow.

The 7-foot Serbian would have been a free agent this summer, and Celtics president Danny Ainge had said the team was interested in bringing back the 27-year-old. Instead, Krstic signed a two-year contract worth 6.6 million euros ($9.6 million).

“I was contacted by Nenad’s agent,’’ said Ainge, “and with the uncertainty of the labor situation of the NBA, I think he decided to take the sure thing.’’

Ainge dealt Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City at the February trade deadline for Krstic, Jeff Green, and and a protected first-round pick from the Clippers. Green was the centerpiece of the deal, but Krstic was immediately thrown into the starting lineup because Shaquille O’Neal (Achilles’ tendon) and Jermaine O’Neal (knee) were injured.

The Celtics won their first five games after Krstic and Green arrived, with Krstic averaging 12.2 points and 4.8 re bounds, and showing a deft shooting touch from the perimeter and a knack for offensive rebounding.

But defensively, he struggled to grasp the team’s concepts. He became a magnet for fouls, which was a point of frustration for coach Doc Rivers.

More than that, though, injuries took their toll. Krstic bruised his right knee March 31 against the Spurs, and as that injury healed, he bruised his left knee and was never completely healthy.

By the end of the regular season, Krstic had fallen out of the starting lineup. After averaging 24.1 minutes, 9.3 points, and 5.6 rebounds in March, he saw his numbers dip to 19.3 minutes, 8.3 points, and 4.5 rebounds in April.

He averaged six minutes in the first-round playoff series against the Knicks, and played in just three of the five games in the second-round loss to the Heat.

Ainge said he had been talking to Krstic since the end of the season about bringing him back.

“He’s been sharing his situation with me,’’ said Ainge. “I talked to him just the other day. He loved Boston and had a great desire to return there and play, but I think the uncertainty gave him [a reason to leave]. I guess this is what he felt, that he was going to take this opportunity.’’

This is the second time Krstic has left the NBA to play in Russia. In the summer of 2008, he signed a two-year deal for 6 million euros with Triumph Lyubertsy. But that December, he agreed to a three-year, $16 million contract with Oklahoma City.

For the Celtics, the center position was already on the offseason checklist. With Shaquille O’Neal retiring last week and Krstic’s deal running out this summer, Jermaine O’Neal is the only center on the roster.

“Regardless of whether he goes over there, he was a free agent this summer anyway,’’ Ainge said. “We were going to have to have someone play center. If it wasn’t Nenad Krstic, it was going to be someone else.

“So we’re still in that situation, other than we don’t have the option to bring back Nenad with us.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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