Shaquille O’Neal blames Kyrie Irving for Celtics’ problems, and offers one simple fix

"Sacrifice."

As the playoffs grow closer and the Celtics continue to lack cohesion and consistency, scrutiny on the preseason Eastern Conference favorites has intensified. That’s a spotlight that burns a superstar the brightest, and Kyrie Irving — by his own admission — hasn’t handled it, or leadership of a team with young talent that came within one game of the Finals without him last season, as well as he could have.

“We’ve got six legit guys that could be primary options on other teams. And when you have that and you’re trying to figure it out, it’s not going to be the best,” Irving told reporters in a candid Monday chat. “I try to stay patient in all of that and not try to get too high or too low. Obviously, I get annoyed pretty quickly. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. But it’s all part of it, so … it’s all part of it.”

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Shaquille O’Neal knows the feeling. He offered Irving some advice early in Tuesday’s “Players Only” doubleheader on TNT, appearing to feed off Irving’s admission on Monday that his young guys are better called just his “teammates” and that they “have a great passion for the game of basketball, and they’ve shown that they can play at a high level.”

“When you’re the man, a lot of responsibility comes with that, and the main responsibility is your team has to play well. … Right now, since the All-Star break, they’re not playing well, and I’m going to go on record and say it’s his fault. Because when we’re the superstars and the team don’t play well, it’s always our fault,” O’Neal said. “It’s our job to get it fixed.

“It’s a simple fix. We’re all superstars up here and we all did one thing to make us great and make our teams, our players great. Sacrifice. Sometimes, Kyrie does a little too much.”

O’Neal relationship with Kobe Bryant during his time with the Lakers has literally filled books, with O’Neal — who joined the Lakers as a free agent months after L.A. acquired Kobe’s rights — declaring early on he wouldn’t be “babysitting” the teenager. More than a decade later, he claimed much of the drama was drummed up (by himself and others), and that he and Bryant are “still the greatest little-man, big-man 1-2 punch ever created in the history of the game.”

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Less remembered is he said essentially the same about he and Penny Hardaway, whom the Orlando Magic traded for at the 1993 draft the year after they took O’Neal first overall in 1992.

“As a superstar, the best decision I ever made in my life was to let my young dogs play,” O’Neal said on Tuesday. “When I first came in, it was all about me. I wanted to do it by myself. There was a kid named Penny Hardaway [in Orlando]. I let him play. We both went to work. Then when I got to L.A., I left Orlando and I wanted to do the same thing … as soon as I said, ‘You know what? Kobe [Bryant], play with me,’ best decision I made.

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“So Kyrie has to let those guys play. They want to play. Use ’em.”

Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Warriors, Boston’s primary five-man lineup of Al Horford, Irving, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and second-year man Jayson Tatum was eighth in the league among the 29 to play at least 200 minutes with a 113.9 offensive rating and tied for 10th in net rating. There is, without question, still potential greater than what’s been shown the last 10 games.

These next two weeks, when the meeting with Golden State is followed by stops in Sacramento, visits with both Los Angeles teams, and a home game against the Kings, would be an excellent moment for things to start coming together.

“Someone once told me inspiration comes from mountain tops and maturity comes from the valleys,” Irving said on Monday. “It’s been pretty ugly at times, but I think that great seasons or great things that happen have come from just a lot of down and out times and guys being tried, especially in a team environment.”

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O’Neal likely buys that two. As the TNT broadcast cut to Oakland, he had something else to say.

He picked the Celtics by 10.