By A.Sherrod Blakely
HOUSTON Shaquille O'Neal is back.
The 7-foot-1 center, who has missed the last 18 games with an assortment of right leg injuries, is traveling with the Celtics as they kick off a three-game road trip that begins here on Friday.
Despite being with the team, O'Neal is not expected to play against the Rockets.
Prior to Boston's 92-80 win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, coach Doc Rivers talked about O'Neal and the likelihood of him returning to the floor soon.
"Shaq shot on Wednesday and felt pretty good," Rivers said. "I don't know what the time frame is for his return. The fact that he's on the floor means sooner than later, I hope."
The past couple of weeks, O'Neal has hinted that he'll return at some point this month.
"When they say 'go,' I'll go," O'Neal told CSNNE.com. "I'm ready to go when they tell me."
Rivers said he wants to see O'Neal make it through a practice and return afterward with no significant pain before he'll be comfortable putting the 38-year-old center on the floor again.
The Celtics did not practice on Thursday.
And with Friday's game at Houston followed by a Saturday night matchup at New Orleans, the Celtics won't practice on Sunday.
However, the C's have held modified practice sessions with the slew of new faces, and O'Neal may participate in those sessions not only to help with his conditioning, but also to show Rivers that he is in fact ready to start playing again.
The Celtics have been overly cautious in bringing O'Neal back too soon for a variety of reasons.
At the top of that list is a fear that a premature return will lead to another injury, which is a risk the C's aren't willing to take, especially with the playoffs only a month away.
And by trading away Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics understand that their margin for error is slim in terms of having effective big men.
Whenever O'Neal does return he is expected to resume his job as the team's starting center, which should do wonders for that first group.
Prior to his injuries, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were enjoying one of their finest seasons ever shooting the ball.
Both credited their starts with the attention that O'Neal receives when he's on the floor.
"He's so big, and has been so dominant for so many years, you can't ignore him," Pierce told CSNNE.com. "And me and Ray, we don't really need a whole lot of space to get our shots off. Having him gives us even more space, so all we're really doing on a lot of nights, is knocking down open shots."
The man setting up a number of those open shots, Rajon Rondo, could also benefit from O'Neal's return.
Rondo, the league's assists leader, was racking up unprecedented numbers with the Big Shamrock in the middle.
While the Celtics have managed to be successful without him, there's no doubt that the C's are a much tougher team to match up with defensively with O'Neal on the floor.
"When Shaquille gets back, that's going to bolster our second unit also," Pierce said. "If he's in the starting lineup that pushes Nenad Krstic there, or vice versa, they are only going to get better."
Krstic, who came to Boston by way of the Feb. 24 trade with Oklahoma City, has been a surprisingly effective player for the Celtics.
While the centerpiece of the trade with the Thunder, Jeff Green, has been solid, Krstic has been the one in the Celtics starting lineup producing in a way that no one -- including Rivers -- anticipated.
"The way we play, if the guy is open they're going to throw it to him," Rivers said. "If it's a shot, he should try and score. If not, he should move and set a pick. He's getting wide open touches and he's taking advantage of it, and he's doing his job."
In 10 games -- all starts -- Krstic is averaging 12.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Maybe just as important, the C's are 7-3 with Krstic as the starting center.
"Nenad is a consummate professional," his agent, Marc Cornstein, told CSNNE.com. "He studies hard. He recognized that this was a new opportunity for him. He relishes the chance to win a title and be a contributing factor in that."