Shaq travels with Celtics; no timetable on return

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Shaq travels with Celtics; no timetable on return

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

HOUSTON Shaquille O'Neal is back.

Sort of.

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."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Blakely's five thoughts from the Green and White Scrimmage

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Blakely's five thoughts from the Green and White Scrimmage

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BOSTON – As has been customary with the Celtics in recent years, their open practice on Friday night featured a pair of 10-minute scrimmages pitting the “Green” team of starters against the “White” team of reserves.
 
The White team, which apparently has been kicking the Green team’s butt for a good chunk of camp, emerged with a 33-26 win. And the Green team had to rally to win the second scrimmage, 24-18.

Similar to summer league, you can’t read too much into what happened and what didn’t happen on Friday night.
 
That said, there were a number of clear and undeniable positives for the Celtics to take from the game and hopefully build upon them going forward.
 
 
5. Al Horford's leadership established
 
The first player’s voice that the 6,000-plus fans at the TD Garden heard from was Al Horford and don’t think for a minute that was just happenstance.
 
For all the scoring and rebounding and defending that the Celtics will look for Horford to do, it is his ability to lead this team that separates him from most of his NBA brethren.
 
The fact that he’s a four-time All-Star speaks to what he has done in this league as a player. But even more telling is that was the fact that he’s been to the playoffs every year he has been in the NBA. And during that span of nine years, he has been pivotal in leading Atlanta beyond the first round – a primary goal for him and the Celtics this season – five times.
 
 
4. Celtics defense could be an elite unit this season
 
The Celtics were a top-10 defensive team last season, and have every reason to believe that they’ll be even better now. Boston has a trio of Pit Bull-like defenders on the perimeter in Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and All-NBA first team defender Avery Bradley. Throw in Jae Crowder’s defensive versatility at the wing along with a pair of upper echelon rim-protectors in Amir Johnson and Al Horford and the Celtics no longer are a team that can put a couple good defenders on the floor at one time. They actually have the depth now to go with a ‘Big’ all-defensive team or a ‘small ball’ all-defensive team which provides the kind of versatility that should result in Boston being a top-3 defensive team this season.
 
 
3. Marcus Smart poised for breakout season
 
Smart seemed about as comfortable as we’ve seen him on Friday, showcasing his range as a shooter while still being able to get after it defensively. Based on what he has done in terms of improving his game, Smart seems more likely to play off the ball than on it. With his size, strength, athleticism and ability to defend multiple positions that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If Boston does indeed have one of those magical-type seasons, Smart is a player that has the potential to help significantly. He understands the Celtics’ system inside and out, and is doing what young players on the rise should do – show growth as a player.
 
 
2. James Young playing best basketball at right time
 
These are some pretty stressful times for James Young, but you wouldn’t know it by the extremely cool demeanor he has exuded. Although it has only been a few short days of training camp, James Young has stepped up his game knowing anything less than his best could result in him being waived and potentially on his way out of the NBA. During the first Green-White scrimmage on Friday night, Danny Ainge said there were five guys essentially fighting for two roster spots. He didn’t single out Young specifically, but it’s no secret that the 21-year-old who is heading into third NBA season is among the players in that group. To Young's credit, he's doing a lot of those little things such as playing solid defense, getting deflections and making "hockey assists" to show he belongs in the NBA and more significantly, should remain a Celtic. 
  
1. Terry Rozier's tremendous strides
 
Rozier was the star of the two scrimmages the Celtics put on in front of about 6,000 people at the TD Garden Friday night. He scored, got assists, rebounded … he did it all. What impressed me the most about him was his defense on Isaiah Thomas. Rozier loves Thomas and respects the hell out of him. But Rozier  has made no secret about wanting to get more playing time this year, and is out to snatch some of the minutes from anyone ahead of him, Thomas included. We saw the tenacious potential Rozier has as an on-the-ball defender, but he seems to have taken that up a notch from his rookie season. And the confidence he has in his shot-making is undeniable. We saw that in summer league and it’s good to see that he brought it with him into training camp. Ditto for his decision-making and leading of the team at the point which are also areas in which he has improved but still needs to continue to get better at on a more consistent basis. There’s no doubt at this point Rozier will play this season and likely get a lion’s share of the minutes vacated by Evan Turner’s departure to Portland.