Shaq's back in the spotlight . . . somehow

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Shaq's back in the spotlight . . . somehow

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Its funny how life works sometimes.

For instance, lets take Shaquille ONeal. One of the greatest centers in NBA history. One of the most famous athletes in the entire world. A guy who, back in August, was willing to give it all up in the name of another ring.

Honestly, thats all he said he wanted.

He wasnt going to give up the fame entirely. When he was off the court, hed still be Shaq, the guy who lives life under a self-imposed microscope. Hed be the most charitable athlete in the city; the most accessible athlete in the city. Hed come to town and live a relatively normal life, do a lot of normal (and some not-so-normal) things. Everywhere he went hed be treated like a hero, like the larger-than-life figure that hes always been. Hed love it. And so would we.

But when it came to basketball, Shaq said he was going to change. He said he wanted to be different. After 17 years spent in the NBA spotlight, and always demanding (and for the most part deserving) that same hero-like treatment in the locker room that he received in the real world, Shaq came to Boston and said he was ready to step aside. He understood the situation. He was the old man. He was the complimentary piece. He wasnt the hero anymore. He wasn't even the sidekick.

He wasnt a necessity, just a super-sized luxury.

And this was OK. He made the transition look easy.

Shaq came to Celtics with the reputation of letting his ego get in the way of what was best for the team. But once he got here, it just wasnt like that. He was embracing team like he never had before. Wed heard that this wasnt the first time hed shown up somewhere and said all the right things, but after a while, the guy really started to feel genuine. It didnt matter what they asked of him.

Oh, you want me to play on the second team? All right, all right. I guess Im the worlds first Shaq-up center." (Queue 20 seconds of uncontrollable media laughter)

He didnt care about numbers, he said. He didnt care about the spotlight, he said. He only cared about winning.

And for the first few months, thats all he had to worry about.

Of course, there were a few injuries -- we always knew there'd be a few -- but, for the most part, Shaq was healthy, and so were the Cs. Happy and healthy, and due largely to ONeal. The starters gelled around him, and the chemistry was unstoppable. He brought Kevin Garnett to places hed never been while in Boston. KG was so miserable the season before, dealing with the effects of age and injury, but Shaq came in and turned back the clock. KG appeared happier than hed been at any time since things unraveled in Minnesota, and was playing his best ball since 2008.

The Shaq Experience probably hit its high note on November 26, the night Shaq dropped 25 point and 11 rebounds on the Nets.

This is a great team. The best team I've been on,"he said afterward. "They've got a lot of weapons on this team, so on any given night anybody can be the leading scorer. The team's very unselfish . . .

That same night, Kevin Garnett repaid the compliment:

Theres no ego with Shaq, its all about the team, he said. You hear different things about certain guys in our league and Shaq was no different from that, but Ive yet to see those things. I think its about how we approach Shaq, and how we deal with Diesel here.

All was good. Shaq really seemed to be a changed man. It helped that because of injuries to Jermaine ONeal and Kendrick Perkins, he still hadnt had to come off the bench; his pride hadnt entirely been threatened. It helped that Rondo was playing so well and the team was cruising. There were nights where Shaq was clearly hurting, but stepped up and gave the Celtics an impactful 20 minutes. He was really working.

But by Christmas, he started to wear down, physically and mentally.

There were games, like Christmas Day in Orlando, where Shaq took the court and made it clear he wasnt in for the long haul. Bob Delaney shares some of the blame on Christmas, but Shaqs 6 fouls-in-12-minutes performance was less inspiring than a Belichick press conference.

From there, it was inconsistent. Injuries mounted; effort, or least intensity, varied. He was still a presence in that locker room, but you were starting to see that old Shaq.

At one point, I was reminded of a conversation Id had back on Opening Night, when the Celtics and Heat kicked off the regular season. I was talking to a reporter from Miami as the teams went through layup lines. Shaq went up for a dunk and the guy turned to me.

Him: (half-laughing): So, you guys ready for Shaq?

Me: Yeah, so far so good. Lets just see if hes still in one piece by April.

Him: Aw, no. Hell be there in April. Take it from someone who watched him for 2 12 years. What you have to worry about is February and March, when he doesnt want to play.

On January 21, Shaq left a game against Utah after only six minutes and then missed the next three games with a leg injury. He came back a week later, and scored five points in 15 minutes against the Suns, then zero points in 12 minutes against the Lakers. On February 1, he scored three points in 16 minutes against Sacramento. Afterwards, he spoke with Yahoo!s Marc Spears.

Its hard not being in charge for me. It really is. But I got to accept it, ONeal said. This is a good team. Im not the only Hall-of-Famer hopeful here.

If I was on a bad team, Id be pissed right now. Two points? I would have expletive somebody up in the locker room.

He hasnt played since. And in that time, a lot has changed.

The Celtics have been through so much. For one reason or another, Shaq -- the once-essential part of that off-the-court attitude and off-the-charts chemistry -- hasnt been there. Maybe thats not entirely his fault, but that doesnt change the reality. He wasnt in Denver when the team went through the emotional hell of losing one of their brothers (not that it would have affected Shaq quite as much). He wasnt there as they welcomed the new guys and started building a new team, a new identity.

Teams arent built in the offseason. Maybe thats when everyone signs the contracts, but real teams are built over 82 games. As the Celtics went through some major team moments, Shaq wasnt there.

The details of why have been hazy. But from the way Docs been talking lately, and with the way the story keeps changing by the source, and by the second, heres the best guess on whats going on:

1. Shaq tried to make his comeback after the All-Star break, but still wasnt feeling great. He felt strong enough to play, but not strong enough to feel like he could play for any extended period of time. Maybe he could have gone for a few weeks, but eventually it was going to sneak back up on him.

2. The Celtics response: Dont rush back. If youre not 100 percent, just take a little bit more time. We know the trade of Perkins leaves a hole in our lineup, but we'd rather have a hole in the lineup now than in the playoffs. So just do what you need to do to get healthy, and well see you soon.

3. Soon turned into not so soon. The Celtics are short players. The Celtics are losing games. The Celtics are going through their worst stretch of the season and now theyre looking at Shaq and thinking: Really? We said take your time, but . . . REALLY?!

Which bring us to now. They know he can play. They know that if the playoffs started tomorrow, Shaq would find his way into the lineup.

But to the Celtics, even though its not the playoffs yet, this time of year feels almost as important in terms of finally putting this thing together. Everyone else is back. Delontes back. Jermaines back. Shaq would complete the triple. Shaq would finally give them the team (minus Krstic now) theyve been waiting for all season. Hes the last piece to the puzzle.

All of a sudden, the Celtics need Shaq. The Celtics are begging for Shaq. The fans are begging for Shaq. Now Shaqs the story.

Hes the number one question on everybodys mind. Hes no longer just one of the guys. Hes back to being Shaq.

And you know what the worst part about it is?

Shaq didnt want any of this!

Remember? He said he was too old for this. He said he was done playing the hero. He said he didnt want it to be about him.

But now he's all anybody wants to talk about.

Must be an awful time for the Big Guy.

If only there was a way to make it stop.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

First impressions of the Red Sox’ 7-2 win over the Orioles

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First impressions of the Red Sox’ 7-2 win over the Orioles

BALTIMORE -- First impressions from the Red Sox' 7-2 win over the Orioles:

* Steven Wright had six 1-2-3 innings among the nine he pitched.

For a brief time in the second, after two were out, Wright battled command. Then, in the fifth, he yielded three straight hits and a sacrifice fly, accounting for the only two runs he allowed.

Otherwise? Wright carved through the Baltimore lineup, facing the minimum number of hitters in six of the nine other innings and one over the minimum in another.

He got a number of weak squibbers - including a couple he fielded himself and of the four hits he allowed, only three left the infield.

* Mookie Betts stole the first Red Sox run with some alert baserunning.

Betts was on second when Xander Bogaerts hit a tapped in front of the mound.

Catcher Caleb Joseph pounced on the ball about 15 feet from home plate, but then stood there after throwing out Bogaerts at first. With home plate unguarded, Betts got to third and alertly kept going, beating the throw home from first baseman Chris Davis.

Betts is the probably the Red Sox' fastest baserunner, but in instances like that one, he showed he's also one of their smartest.

* David Ortiz is a menace at Camden Yards.

There's a reason John Farrell waited to make out the lineup card, hoping that David Ortiz was available after missing Sunday's game with a sore foot. Ortiz usually makes his presence felt here and Monday was no different.

He homered to right to lead off the eighth, giving him seven homers in his last 10 games at Camden Yards and 12 homers in his last 28 games.

If Ortiz played for the Orioles, it's frightening to think what sort of power numbers he could put up playing half the time in a ballpark with an inviting right field porch.

* The Sox have gotten plenty of contributions from bench players.

Josh Rutledge (.830 OPS) has helped out in the infield, with Brock Holt relegated to LF, and more recently, the DL. On Monday, it was Marco Hernandez's turn. Hernandez supplied a three-run homer from the ninth spot in the eighth inning, turning a two-run lead into a five-run advantage.

Their contributions have allowed Farrell to make some moves around the infield, such as Monday's decision to give Hanley Ramirez a day off while shifting Travis Shaw to first.

Sean McAdam can be followed on Twitter @Sean_McAdam.

2017 NBA title odds are out, Celtics rank second in the East

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2017 NBA title odds are out, Celtics rank second in the East

Teams are still fighting for the 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, but the 2017 NBA title opening odds have already been released by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. The Warriors unsurprisingly come in as heavy 3/2 favorites. The Cavaliers already punched their ticket for this year’s finals and are second, with 5/2 odds. Then there’s the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers, as you’d expect rounding off the top five.

But then there’s the Celtics with 20/1 odds -- sixth-best in the NBA -- to raise Banner 18.

With eight draft picks and a chunk of cap space, the Celtics are in a position to capitalize on any opportunities that may come their way. There is a lot of uncertainty at this point in the NBA calendar, so Vegas must be hedging their bets on the Celtics making a leap towards contender status.

Celtics fans will also be happy to know the Nets have 500/1 odds to hoist the trophy next season, which ranks last of all teams. The Celtics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in the 2017 draft, which could give them another swing at a superstar prospect.

For full draft profiles of players the Celtics could draft this year, click here.

Team Opening odds
Golden State Warriors 3/2
Cleveland Cavaliers 5/2
San Antonio Spurs 6/1
Oklahoma City Thunder 8/1
Los Angeles Clippers 16/1
Boston Celtics 20/1
Toronto Raptors 25/1
Miami Heat 25/1
Chicago Bulls 40/1
Atlanta Hawks 40/1
Minnesota Timberwolves 60/1
New Orleans Pelicans 60/1
Houston Rockets 60/1
Portland Trail Blazers 60/1
Memphis Grizzlies 80/1
Utah Jazz 80/1
Charlotte Hornets 80/1
Washington Wizards 100/1
Indiana Pacers 100/1
Dallas Mavericks 100/1
Milwaukee Bucks 100/1
Detroit Pistons 100/1
Los Angeles Lakers 100/1
New York Knicks 100/1
Sacramento Kings 100/1
Philadelphia 76ers 100/1
Orlando Magic 100/1
Denver Nuggets 100/1
Phoenix Suns 300/1
Brooklyn Nets 500/1

Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

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Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

FOXBORO -- Late last year, Bill Belichick went out of his way to explain just how far then-rookie defensive lineman Malcom Brown had progressed over the course of his first professional season. 

From the sounds of it, the first-round defensive tackle's on-the-field growth was atypical. 

"I think he’s really come on through the season, which isn’t always the case with first-year players," Belichick said on Dec. 30. "It took him a while to get to that point through training camp and the early part of the season, but he’s become much better and more consistent in every phase of the game – running game, passing game, play recognition, communication, adjustments – just everything. It seems like every week he just builds on it.

"He’s really hit a good slope, good incline. He’s worked hard. There is a lot on every rookie’s plate. There’s a lot on his plate as a rookie in the different situations that he plays in and the number of things that we do on the front, so it’s not easy, but he’s improved his techniques, his fundamental play and he’s improved his communication and overall understanding of the multiples that are involved. It’s been good."

Brown finished the year as the Patriots interior defensive lineman with the most snaps played (his 517 snaps trailed only Jabaal Sheard, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich among defensive linemen), and he established himself as a trustworthy option in the team's steady rotation on the interior of its front. 

According to one of Brown's newest teammates, free-agent acquisition Terrance Knighton, Brown is now serving as a leader on the interior of the defensive line. Though he's only in his second season, Brown's understanding of the Patriots defense gives him a leg up on players who may have more experience in the league but are new to New England. 

"Malcom Brown has basically been leading the group," Knighton said after an OTA practice last Thursday. "Being in his second year, he's probably the most experienced guy in it right now as far as this team. I'm picking his brain to see how things are done around here."

 

Knighton acknowledged that once the Patriots have Alan Branch back on the field -- Branch was one of 17 players missing from Thursday's OTA -- they'll get another player with a sound understanding of the defense. But right now, Brown is looked to as a source of information for veterans like Knighton and Markus Kuhn as well as rookie fourth-rounder Vincent Valentine. 

"Young guy, obviously played at a high level last year and you can tell he's feeding off of that," Knighton said of Brown. "He's only continued, from what I've seen on tape to now. That's one of the things I try to talk to about with the young guys is being on the up, and not going up and down in your career. That's something I've been through in my career so I just try to share knowledge and help guys out."

Brown, who turned 22 in February, certainly ended last season "on the up." In the early going this offseason, it seems as though he's on track to continue that trajectory.