Shaq May Be on Track for End-of-Week Return

WALTHAM, Mass. – When Shaquille O’Neal hobbled off of the parquet floor in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game at the TD Garden, it felt as if the worst imaginable outcome had played out during his first game back from injury – season over.

As we learned shortly thereafter, his night was over, but his season certainly was not. The injury has been classified as a minor right calf strain, and that description was music to Doc Rivers’ ears because it didn’t include the word “Achilles.” O’Neal had missed the last two months with an Achilles injury to the same leg, and the last thing the Celtics wanted to see was their center reaggravating that longstanding issue.

The eventual news that this injury had nothing to do with his Achilles was great, but when he initially gimped off of the court by hopping on one leg, everyone in the building feared the worst. He was less than six minutes of playing time into his comeback, and just like that, it seemed as if it was over.

“I blinked, and he was gone,” Ray Allen said at Monday’s practice.

Well, during that blink, Shaq was able to show what he brings to this team while he’s out on the floor. O’Neal contributed immediately at both ends with six points, a rebound and a blocked shot that was whistled as a goaltend. He was as active as anyone could have hoped, including his coach.

“He looked agile, his energy was high,” Rivers Monday afternoon. “As far as his [six] minutes of play, that was good.”

Rivers hopes that O’Neal’s minute total will jump up to somewhere around 20 when the playoffs arrive, but working toward that goal will not continue until at least the end of this week. Though the strain has been deemed minor, the team will approach the injury with caution and Rivers left open just a slim chance that Shaq will make it back into the lineup by week’s end.

“He will not probably play the rest of this week,” Rivers said before quickly amending that comment. “I want to table that (statement), because he may play at the end of the week, we’re just not sure yet.”

By “end of the week,” Rivers could mean any of three games. The Celtics have a stretch of three games in four days that begins Thursday night, and two of those contests are against other Eastern Conference powerhouses. Boston plays on the road in Chicago on Thursday night and then in Miami Sunday afternoon.

The interesting fact is that, despite this injury that will force him to miss at least one game, his playing schedule might not change much from what Rivers initially anticipated. Boston’s coach confided that his original plan was to play O’Neal in only three or four games, tops, during the final week and a half of the regular season, and the Celtics currently have six games remaining. So it’s certainly still conceivable that O’Neal can reach that number and prep himself in as many games as Rivers initially planned on.

We’re not sure when his next game is going to be, but we are sure that he will play again, and soon. This wasn’t a season-ending injury, it was just a game-ending injury, and that means the Celtics’ frontline, which will essentially feature four 7-footers, is still on track to be healthy for the playoffs. That’s great news for the Celtics, and a tough pill to swallow for their opponents.