Celtics get Shaquille O'Neal back

BOSTON -- After missing four games due to soreness in his right calf, Shaquille O'Neal returned to the Celtics' starting lineup Sunday and wasted little time making an impact.

Less than 90 seconds into Sunday's tilt with the Pacers, O'Neal caught a perfect lob from Paul Pierce and produced an emphatic one-handed jam over Jeff Foster that proved that, even at age 38, O'Neal is still capable of producing poster moments.

O'Neal connected on 4 of 5 shots for 11 first-quarter points, helping Boston open an early nine-point cushion. O'Neal finished with those 11 points -- missing his final three shots -- and five rebounds over 20 minutes, 46 seconds of action.

"He was great; he had great energy," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I think that alley-oop probably sent him back five years. It was terrific. I've got to tell you, when Paul threw the pass, I thought no, there was just no way. And he not only caught it, but he finished it. So that was nice.

"But Shaq, you could see he had great energy. And him and Kevin [Garnett], they're both great passing bigs. When you have them both on the floor, our passing is off the charts."

O'Neal admitted to some postgame soreness, but credited team trainer Eddie Lacerte with getting him back on the floor and the Celtics staff with not rushing him despite a need for bodies.

"I'm good," O'Neal said. "[The calf is] kind of sore, but I'll just take it easy and just try to strengthen the area. Like I said, Eddie Lacerte did a great job in getting me back.

"I wanted to play that Knicks game, but I had one little spot still bothering me. Doc said to wait until I was close to 100 percent. I had a couple of days off and I felt pretty good. I wanted to give it a shot today."

O'Neal's minutes were crucial on a night that rookie Semih Erden, who filled the starting role admirably in the absence of a veteran big the past four games, logged only 6:38 while battling a groin pull. But after the game, it was the first-quarter alley-oop that everyone wanted to talk about.

"Shaq can play as long as he wants if he's making plays like that," Ray Allen said with a smile. "I'm just glad he's on my team."

O'Neal gave a little shake after the emphatic and-one jam brought the Garden crowd to its feet. He dubbed it "The Diesel Walk," much to the delight of teammate Nate Robinson.

"I thought he was going to do the Merton Hanks -- break his neck, oh man, I hoping for that one," Robinson said, referencing the former 49ers defensive back and his trademark celebration. "He's got that shimmy."

Meanwhile, Jermaine O'Neal remained inactive, but Celtics coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that he could be back on the floor as early as Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Celtics have been thin up front for more than a month, with Shaq missing a total of nine games since bumping knees with New York's Amare Stoudemire in late November, while a sore left knee has kept Jermaine O'Neal out of action for 17 straight games dating back his exit in the second half of a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 8.

Rivers acknowledged that Jermaine O'Neal "looked great" Saturday and expressed a desire to play him Wednesday, but only if the player felt ready to return to game action. Elsewhere on the injury front, Rivers said he had no update on point guard Rajon Rondo and his sprained left ankle.

"I have no idea, I really don't," Rivers said. "Honestly, I haven't even asked [Celtics trainer] Eddie [Lacerte]."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com