Commentary

What to watch for in Celtics' opener

Updated: October 6, 2010, 2:43 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- What is Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers looking for during his team's first exhibition game Wednesday evening? Even he doesn't know for sure. But what Rivers does know is that the first game will likely serve as his guide for what to look for moving forward.

"I think preseason games, the first couple, they kind of tell you what you should be looking at," said Rivers, whose squad treks to Manchester, N.H., to host the Philadelphia 76ers in Boston's exhibition opener.

Two things fans shouldn't expect: Jermaine O'Neal (sore hamstring) and extended minutes for the veterans. Rivers indicated he'll run the team through a cardio-heavy practice before making the bus ride north and will settle for a small glimpse at his first and second units before letting the younger players take center stage.

So while Rivers might not know exactly what else he's looking for, here are five things we'll have our eyes on:

Shaq and the starters

Before camp began, Rivers said that he'd allow the preseason to help dictate whether Shaquille O'Neal or Jermaine O'Neal emerges as the temporary starter in place of injured Kendrick Perkins (knee surgery). With Jermaine O'Neal's hamstring injury forcing him to miss the past three practice sessions, Shaq gets the opening assignment with the first team Wednesday night.

[+] EnlargeShaq
AP Photo/Charles KrupaShaquille O'Neal gets his first chance to mesh with the Celtics' starters Wednesday.

Beyond intrasquad scrimmages, this will be the first time the Celtics will get a chance to evaluate how Shaq fits in with the first group. Does his size bog down a run-heavy offense? Do his struggles against the pick-and-roll cause defensive headaches even with Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo nearby? O'Neal looked like a good fit in the brief portion of Tuesday's starters versus subs scrimmage that was open to the media, but the 76ers game will provide an early indication of whether it will work outside Boston's practice courts.

Rivers stressed that he wants Shaq to simply find himself in Boston's system.

"With all of the new guys, I know they can play and what they can do," said Rivers. "What I'm more concerned with -- for [Shaq], J.O., [Delonte West] and the young guys -- is picking up our timing on defense and offense. That's why we're going [to practice Wednesday afternoon]. There won't be a lot of contact, but by doing stuff over and over, eventually it will all click."

Delonte and the reserves

Returning to the practice court Tuesday after missing a day with back spasms, West pronounced himself ready for Wednesday's game. Maybe more than any other player on the team, West is savoring the experience of the eight-game preseason slate because of a 10-game suspension that will sideline him for the first three weeks of the regular season.

"You have to embrace each day as presented; tomorrow is not promised to any of us," said West. "You have to enjoy right now, do your work the best you can, then hope, in the end, that work pays off.

"Ten games is a lot of games. It's only [three] weeks in reality, but it's still a lot of games that I'm going to miss. During the suspension, I have to be out of the locker room and the arena two hours in advance. Pregame and how the guys are warming up, the pregame huddle, Doc's first speech before Game 1 -- those are things I'm going to miss and those are important things. That's why going into the preseason, I'm obviously going to try to take as much as I can. So I can jump right in, so when my number is called on Nov. 17, I'm ready to go."

West impressed during the open portion of Tuesday's scrimmage, often handling the ball and fueling the offense by attacking the basket.

But the second unit must develop chemistry both with and without him.

Wafer vs. West

After toiling on the third team for much of camp, both Von Wafer and Mario West will get a chance to showcase their skills early in the preseason when the team's youngest players get the majority of minutes. Wafer needs to prove he can be a consistent offensive weapon both from behind the arc and driving to the rim, while West needs to prove that his potential as a defensive stopper is reason for the team to keep him around.

Wafer hasn't made a lot of shots in camp, but he's hoping time with the second unit will allow his shooting to flourish, particularly as he gets closer to what Rivers dubbed "Celtics speed." But Wafer also has to show that he's not one-dimensional and can grasp the team's defense, which will help him earn minutes at both the shooting guard and small forward spots.

Mario West continues to draw praise for his scrappiness. But he's essentially a Wafer foil unless he exhibits a shooting touch that thus far has been absent during his NBA career. He's a feisty defender and a guy who the veterans believe can push them in practice. Rivers compared him to Brian Scalabrine as someone whose skill set isn't particularly glitzy but can step in at any moment and not be a liability.

The "revived" KG

Rivers said the veterans might see between eight and 14 minutes, so don't expect to see a lot of the Big Ticket. But it will be interesting to see if, in that limited court time, Garnett lives up to the preseason talk that he has returned to the "explosive" player he was before the knee injury that derailed his 2008-09 season and lingered into 2009-10.

Keep an eye on Garnett around the basket, whether it's chasing rebounds or going up to block shots. Those are two areas he struggled mightily with at times last season, his timing and confidence seemingly affected by the knee, which he aggravated with a hyperextension in late December.

It will also be interesting to see if Garnett goes to the post and demands the ball, as Rivers says he's been doing during scrimmages. Boston lacked a true post game last season, settling for more midrange jumpers from both Garnett and Paul Pierce, so a post-friendly Garnett (combined with Shaq) could really open a complementary inside/outside game.

First look: Erden, Harangody

While top draft pick Avery Bradley (first round, 19th overall) remains unable to participate in contact drills as he eases his way back from offseason ankle surgery, two Boston rookies will make their NBA debuts in Semih Erden (60th overall in 2008) and Luke Harangody (52nd overall in 2010).

Erden, in particular, stands to get increased minutes with Jermaine O'Neal out and 38-year-old Shaq's time sure to be limited. Erden is tantalizingly talented at times, displaying some impressive offensive moves around the basket. But his rebounding remains a major concern as he is often out of position or late to react to an available ball.

After a week-plus of getting beat up by the O'Neals, it will be interesting to see how Erden is developing since we last saw him in last month's FIBA World Championship (helping host Turkey to a silver medal).

Harangody gets his first chance to show how he fits in on the Boston bench. Keep an eye on where he's playing and whom he's matched up with. Can Harangody exploit his size advantage against wing players, while also keeping up with them defensively? When he's at the power forward spot, can he compete on the glass when the players are taller (and stronger) than what he saw in college?

And can the rookies keep their emotions in check? The adrenaline will be pumping for their first game action, even if it that hasn't shown yet.

"No, I don't know [if they're excited]," said Rivers. "Hell, Semih, I have no idea. And Luke speaks as much English as Semih because he never talks. I have no idea what they're thinking. They'll probably be pretty fired up by [Wednesday]."

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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