- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledges that he's been forced to play 38-year-old Shaquille O'Neal in longer shifts than he's comfortable with as Boston battles a relentless injury bug. So when O'Neal asked for rest after a near eight-minute shift to start Friday's game against the Charlotte Bobcats, Rivers was happy to oblige.
Then rookie Semih Erden, brilliant his last time out, picked up three fouls in three head-slapping minutes and Rivers begrudgingly sent O'Neal back onto the court for the final 43 seconds of the first quarter (and the first 4:28 of the second frame).
"I was [ticked], too," Rivers said with a slight smile. "Shaq wants to play, but he doesn't want to play 35 minutes. He had just said, 'Give me a blow here,' then -- bam, bam -- Semih's out."
O'Neal ultimately logged a season-high 35 minutes, 13 seconds but also scored a team-high 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting with five rebounds, five blocks and two assists as Boston downed visiting Charlotte 99-94 at the TD Garden.
For his part, O'Neal admitted he couldn't complain much about the heightened activity.
"I knew that, whatever happened, I was going to be ready," O'Neal said. "I've been in foul trouble and haven't really played a lot of minutes, so there was really no excuse for me to be tired. I just came out and got a few more touches tonight and just did what I did."
What he did was turn back the clock. O'Neal logged his most regular-season minutes since a 37-minute outing with the Phoenix Suns on April 8, 2009. Last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he never topped 32:23.
But the Celtics were desperate for serviceable big bodies Friday night, evidenced in the first half when Rivers was forced to go with a lineup that featured Glen Davis at center with Marquis Daniels and Paul Pierce combining to fill the power forward spot. It's the exact lineup Rivers said a day before that he hoped he'd never have to use.
With Erden in constant foul trouble after the rough start (he played a mere 8:24 overall), O'Neal logged 17:15 in the first half (putting a rare challenge to Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen for the title of first-half ironman), then played nearly the entire fourth quarter (scoring nine points in that frame) to help seal a not-so-flashy win.
"It's just too many minutes," Rivers said. "Tonight, we had no choice. It's not a big deal for one night; I don't worry about it. And we don't play again until Monday, so that's nice. It came at the right moment."
That moment came after 32-year-old Jermaine O'Neal told reporters before Friday's game that he's pondering knee surgery that has the potential to end not only his season but maybe his NBA career. The other O'Neal, slowed at times by sore calves, hips and fibula heads (his own diagnosis) went out and partied like it was 1999 (when he averaged a career-best 29.7 points per game for the Los Angeles Lakers).
O'Neal abused the tandem of Kwame Brown (a player whose name came up as a potential Boston big man before Shaq got signed this offseason) and Nazr Mohammed, showcasing a familiar array of low-post moves while bullying his way to easy buckets.
It was vintage Shaq.
"If I get the touches and get the calls, most of the time the outcome is going to be like that," O'Neal said. "It's not really my role here; I'm here to do whatever Doc asks me to do."
Maybe more impressive was the way he limited the output of his opposition (Brown and Mohammed combined for 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting) while blocking five shots despite being cautious of getting in foul trouble while providing help defense.
"A lot of the times I get fouls helping out, so I have to be selective," O'Neal said. "I knew we were a big man short, so there were a couple layups I knew I had to let go. I was just trying to play smart."
It didn't matter how he played, really. The Celtics were so dinged up, he was going to play any which way, maybe even injured. But O'Neal deemed himself in "excellent" shape after Friday's game, this after his coach suggested O'Neal is always "day-to-day" because, as Rivers noted, "he's old as hell."
Shaq credited his fellow townspeople of Sudbury, Mass., where he resides on a massive farm, for keeping him in shape by insisting he eat "salad and fish" instead of junk food. But maybe Rivers' jab got back to him.
If so, Rivers might try it before each game.
"That was terrific," Rivers said. " Maybe I need to keep doing that."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
When the Celtics are injured and depleted, it's Shaq to the rescue.