Perkins trade hangs over Shaq, Celtics

Shaquille O'Neal played just five minutes before leaving with a right calf strain

BOSTON – Shaquille O’Neal(notes) had made one more grand entrance into a basketball season’s championship chase. The cheers tumbled down out of the Garden and lathered him like old times for his old bones. Across these months, Shaq had gone from a luxury to a necessity for these Boston Celtics, the riskiest proposition of all.

Two months away and there was Shaq tumbling to the floor on a twisting reserve layup Sunday night. There was Shaq lapping a jump shot out of the air, tossing a pass over his shoulder and bouncing the ball past midcourt on the fast break. Two months removed from an Achilles injury, and suddenly it was all one more mirage, a throwback in time splashed with a bucket of ice water. Suddenly, there was Shaq running, slowing down on the court, and looking like someone had stabbed him in the back of his leg.

Soon, Shaq hunched over the floor, stumbled past the bench and crumpled in the corridor outside the Celtics’ locker room.

The questions over the Kendrick Perkins(notes) trade remain relentless and they only get louder and louder with Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal(notes) so brittle, so hard to depend upon. They won’t go away until Shaq makes them go away. The trade hangs over the season, the franchise, like an anvil.

“We took that gamble,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. “We’re going to hear that, but I can tell you that I don’t hear that – ever – talked about in our locker room. Listen, we had a lot of discussions before we did it. But they knew it, and they all knew what we were thinking. They’ve all accepted it – we have to.”

This time, the Celtics say it was a calf strain, but it sure looked like that heel had flared again. They can call the injury whatever they want, insist that he won’t be out long, but it’s all semantics with Shaq and the Celtics. He’s 39 years old, and the best, last chance of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics hinges on the old mythology of Shaquille O’Neal.

The Celtics don’t need him to be the old Shaq. They just need him to stay on the floor. And with six games left in the regular season, with so much in flux on these Celtics, Shaq can’t do it.

Around him, Shaq still hears the young kids feeding the once-upon-a-time fantasy and it must make him believe that somehow it can all still be true for him.

“He don’t get hurt,” Glen Davis(notes) said. “Shaq is invincible, man. That’s what I believe in. Man of Steel. That’s what I’ve been believing in since I was a little kid.”

Davis comes out of the Bayou, out of a childhood of idolizing Shaq and chasing his legacy to Louisiana State University. Superman is long gone, replaced with the realities of a too-heavy, too-old center with a lower body that is struggling to support his frame. Rivers insists the Celtics could live without Shaq or Jermaine O’Neal, but confesses: “We have to have one of the O’Neal Brothers.”

Brothers in bad legs, only. Shaq had been out for two months with the Achilles' inflammation and hadn’t had a practice with the Celtics before being cleared for Sunday night’s game. Rivers planned to give him 10-12 minutes, ease him back and perhaps play him again on Tuesday against Philadelphia. Everyone wonders: If the injury isn’t serious, should Rivers simply sit him until the playoffs start in two weeks? His inclination is, no, he isn’t going to baby Shaq, because he needs to know – one way or another – if he can hold up to anything.

“He needs to play,” Rivers said. “We have to play at full-tilt …”

Jermaine O’Neal had knee surgery, missed 56 games and finally made his first start of the season on Sunday. He was all right, but the idea that Boston can lean on him in the playoffs is a hard sell. Nenad Krstic(notes) is the third center on these Celtics, but he’s no inside presence on defense. No rebounder. He can score the ball, balance the bench, but Boston needs Shaq’s size, his strength, his ability to demand a double-team with the ball.

As one Eastern Conference scout said, “They need the O’Neals to add up to one complete player in the playoffs.”

The Celtics are going to finish as the third seed in the Eastern Conference, because Rivers is unwilling to chase the Heat for the second seed at the expense of extending minutes and risking injury and fatigue for the playoffs. They’ll also finish behind the Heat because they deserve to finish behind them, deserve to have to play a Game 7 in the conference semifinals on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

Over the summer, when Shaq was recruiting teams to bid on him, he told several team executives: Would you rather go into Miami this season with or without me? Just to have him along for the fight would be worth the veteran’s minimum investment, but something changed along the way for the Celtics this season. They traded Perkins to Oklahoma City out of fear they couldn’t re-sign him and out of belief they could get through the season with Shaq.

And now, everything has changed: The Boston Celtics no longer want Shaq to go to Miami and Chicago with them, they need him. The Man of Steel crumpled on the Garden floor again Sunday night, no longer invincible, no longer bigger than life. Those first few precious minutes of his return were magnificent, but a mirage from a different time, a different place in a legend’s basketball career. Superman went down again Sunday, and the Celtics’ last-gasp push to hang an 18th championship banner above them never seemed so fragile.