Posted Nov 26 2010 11:34AM
The Celtics are different than most in that each night is a battle waged on two fronts: against the other team, and against The Six Month Grind.
The Grind is the subtle enemy, sneaky too, gradually sapping strength and tendons and refusing to wreak chaos until right around Memorial Day, precisely when the Celtics need to be their freshest.
Such is the case for a team that suits up Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal and hoping they aren't covered in ice bags once they get through the 82-game grind, or worse, medical tape.
That's why these are comforting and reassuring times for the Celtics, who are reaping the benefits of the early season, with Garnett and Shaq looking frisky and flexible and more than making up for the continued loss of Kendrick Perkins from knee surgery.
One is 34 but is much older, given that he skipped college and has the strain of carrying the entire Minnesota franchise for over a decade. Add a few knee procedures and you can understand why the Celtics are breathing easier while watching K.G. run the floor without a wince.
"He's back to being what he was a couple years ago," said coach Doc Rivers. "I said it last year, that I knew he'd be back better than he was since he joined us. It's just the spring he has now. It's obvious. That's what you see. And his ability to run the bigs down the floor. He couldn't do that last year. Now he's doing it."
The other is 38 and coming off a throwback game, with 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Nets, evoking memory of the Lakers Shaq and the Heat Shaq. While Shaq has never sat a long stretch with a major injury, his 300-plus pound body has only so many baseline-to-baseline jogs left. With the Celtics keeping him on the 20-minute diet plan, Shaq is able to get in his reps without stretching himself too thin (a word seldom used when describing Shaq).
"My savior days are over," said Shaq. "This situation is different for me in that it's not all about me anymore. I'm 38. You've got the Big Three, and the next two. That's me and [Rajon] Rondo."
Shaq and K.G., linked by their sunset years, are anchoring a front line that's not exactly McHale-Bird-Parish, but not bad considering the circumstances. They're being asked to stay healthy, play decent minutes, perform at the highest level possible and keep the Celtics near the top of the standings. And did we mention stay healthy?
Garnett is playing 30 minutes a night and giving 15 points and nine rebounds. Of those numbers, the 30 minutes are most impressive. And it's the way he's been playing -- active, lively on both ends, aggressive -- that's giving the Celtics some hope that K.G.'s chronic knee issues, which caused him to miss 38 regular season games the last two years and limp through two post-seasons, are dormant.
The injury history remains a sensitive subject with Garnett, who refuses to dwell on his ravaged body.
"I'm just like anyone else in this league, man," he said. "I just want to play. I'm beat up here and there, but I enjoy playing ball."
But mention the addition of Shaq, and Garnett's mood changes drastically.
"Shaq is paradise," said Garnett. "You ever wash your sheets and then set them out to dry in the sun? You ever smell those sheets when they're done? That's what Shaq is."
Shaq is averaging almost 12 points and seven rebounds with the Celtics, a bit more than they bargained for when he signed last summer as a free agent and insurance for Perkins. It was understood he'd be nothing more than a fifth option at best, meaning fewer looks and virtually no plays called for him. It's an ego-check for a four-time champion and member of the NBA's 50th anniversary team, yet Shaq has found satisfaction in keeping the starter's seat warm for Perkins, being part of a winner and chipping in whenever possible.
The chance to play alongside Garnett was an added bonus.
"I've played on a lot of teams where the other team didn't have to respect the "4," Shaq said. "So now they have to respect him and it leaves a lot of room for me. Being that they also have to respect me, it helps him. So it's been a good fit.
"It's a relationship of respect, him and me. We've had so many battles over the years. So we can say anything to each other. If I'm out there slacking, he can say something to me and I'll respect his word. I knew it was going to be a good relationship coming in."
The combination works right now, but they can't declare any victory until next spring. The Six Month Grind will have the final say.
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