BOSTON -- Shaquille O'Neal made his long-awaited return to the lineup, joining the Boston Celtics for their game against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday. But the big guy's reappearance ended almost as soon as it began.
Forty-nine seconds into the second quarter -- and into his sixth minute of action -- O'Neal came up limping while running up the floor on a Boston possession, clearly favoring the right foot which had given him so much trouble the last two months.
The team said O'Neal, who needed a wheelchair to move through the tunnel, has a right calf strain. He did not return to the Celtics' 101-90 win.
"I don't know what to do, honestly," Celtics coach Doc Rivers
said when asked if O'Neal should be shut down for the rest of the
regular season. "My inclination is not, because he needs to play.
We have to play at full-tilt in six or seven [games]."
O'Neal was not available for comment because he left before the
end of the game, Rivers said; TV showed him walking out of the TD
Garden with a slight limp. But Rivers expressed optimism because
the injury was
not the same as the Achilles tendon strain that had kept him out
since Feb. 1.
"The doctor thought it was very minor. Scary more than
anything," Rivers said. "But we'll see."
O'Neal's Achilles injury was originally described as a minor
one that would sideline him for just a few games. Asked how long he
thought O'Neal would be out this time, Rivers let out a mirthless
"I don't know, is the answer," he said. "I don't think very
O'Neal appeared to be in considerable pain, using the padded table adjacent to the Celtics' bench to support himself. He was hunched over as he headed to the locker room, accompanied by team physicians. A TD Garden crowd that had been enraptured by the first five minutes of O'Neal's play suddenly went silent.
O'Neal made his first appearance with 4:43 remaining in the first quarter, replacing Kevin Garnett to a standing ovation.
Fifteen seconds later, he made a layup for his first points in more than two months. A few seconds after that, he deflected an alley-oop pass intended for Detroit's Greg Monroe, a play in which his momentum carried him into the baseline seats. O'Neal added two more baskets -- a jump hook and a spinning layup -- before returning to the bench with 3 seconds left in the period. In five minutes, he was 3-of-3 from the field while also collecting a rebound and committing a turnover.
Rivers then put O'Neal on the floor to start the second quarter. Apparent disaster soon followed.
Rivers said before the game that he planned to ease O'Neal back into the lineup. The plan for the Pistons game was to bring him off the bench for stints of 5-7 minutes in each of the two halves. The Celtics are 27-9 in the 36 games O'Neal has played this season.
Before the game, Rivers said he toyed with the idea of starting O'Neal, but then rejected it because "we have to have some kind of rhythm to start the game." He also said he had always assumed O'Neal would be back; he just didn't know when.
"Well you think about that, but not much," Rivers said. "I was concerned that [there was] a chance that he may not have been able to play until the playoffs. That crept in my mind. I always thought he would play. I was pretty sure of that, I just didn't know when. So that was the concern more than anything."
Rivers said he was largely going by the advice of the team's medical people to get O'Neal back on the floor. Prior to the game, O'Neal was seen walking through the locker room, barefoot. In the last 10 days, he had worn a protective boot on the right foot after receiving a cortisone shot.
"We were going to play him, regardless," Rivers said. "He was ready. He has been working out the last couple weeks. He hasn't gone down the bad road, which is good. So it's time to put him on the floor."
Rivers joked that O'Neal worked out at the Celtics' practice facility on Saturday -- an off day for the team after having played consecutive nights in San Antonio and Atlanta.
"He worked out against the cones," Rivers said. "And he was a dominant force."
Peter May covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Information from ESPNBoston.com's Greg Payne and The Associated Press was used in this report.