By A. Sherrod Blakely
SAN ANTONIO The Boston Celtics are starting to get worried that Shaquille O'Neal's sabbatical from the game to deal with an assortment of right footlegAchilles tendon continues to take longer than expected.
While the goal is to have him suit up before the playoffs, Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged on Thursday that the team has no definitive idea as to when the 7-foot-1 center will be back.
"I really hope we can get him before the playoffs," said Rivers, who added that the injury is starting to "get close to bleeding" into the team's postseason plans.
While the C's maintain there hasn't been any setback -- in fact, Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, told WEEI soon after Rivers spoke that O'Neal would be back Sunday or Tuesday of next week -- they do say it has taken longer to heal than anticipated. (Isn't that a setback?)
There will certainly be an adjustment period when he does return, whenever that may be.
Still, there are certain positives that O'Neal brings to the floor that trump whatever adjustments he needs to make in terms of Xs and Os.
"The good thing with him is that he's still big and strong," Rivers said. "But not playing until the playoffs would be difficult."
And because of O'Neal's role with the team, the C's aren't banking on him to be a dominate presence for extended periods of time.
"The thing is, it's not like he's a focal point offensively," Rivers said. "Defensively, he does what he does. His size is a factor. But you still have to know all the sets offensively and defensively for the other guys to run stuff."
His size. His strength.
Rivers has a good handle on those things.
But it is the unknown - when will O'Neal return - that he admits presents yet another hurdle for the Celtics moving forward.
"I just don't know because I've never had this situation," Rivers said. "It's getting to become a challenge. It wasn't before, because I just viewed it as a regular-season injury. Now it's starting to get close to bleeding into playoffs. Now that becomes a challenge."