Ever since the Celtics first convened together in Waltham, Mass., for their media day last month to kick off the preseason, their two All-Star centers have maintained from the start that neither one of them cares about the starting center position.
"It doesn't matter to me," they say.
"I'll come off the bench if that's what Doc Rivers wants," they say.
"I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win," they say.
None of these oft-repeated sound bites are too surprising. Celtics newcomers Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal have been around the block a few times — between the two of them, they've amassed a combined 32 seasons, 2,032 games and 45,616 minutes played in the NBA. They both know what they're doing, and they're both well-versed in the fine art of Saying the Right Things.
But why are they saying them?
It's naive to think that the O'Neals are speaking out of pure, honest to God, 100 percent selflessness. A more reasonable explanation: There's been a tacit understanding, ever since the Celtics signed Jermaine O'Neal away from the Miami Heat on July 8, that J.O. would be the starter when the season tipped off. Jermaine wasn't saying anything about it because he wanted to be modest about it, and Shaq wasn't saying anything because it wasn't his place. But deep down, both guys saw the writing on the wall.
Jermaine is younger — he just turned 32 last week, whereas Shaq will be 39 by the end of this season. He's more active, more mobile, more committed to the defense-first philosophy that's already brought one championship to Boston. Naturally, he's the best fit for the job, and he's the best replacement for Kendrick Perkins, the defensive presence that helped the C's reach the NBA Finals last June.
The Celtics kept it a secret that Jermaine was the clear favorite to start. Why give it away? That would only make their opponents' lives easier as far as game planning, and take the edge away from the two Celtics bigs competing for minutes in training camp. The C's instead pulled off their best Bill Belichick impression and kept the issue on the down-low.
It's a good thing, too, because now, quietly, we're starting to see a shift.
A month ago, Jermaine was the clear favorite. Now, he's in clear and present danger. The job is slipping away.
Shaq nearly gave the Celtics a double-double on Wednesday night in their preseason finale against New Jersey, finishing just short with 12 points and nine rebounds in a 107-92 win. He finished the exhibition schedule averaging 9.0 points and 4.8 boards in five games — all of them starts.
Jermaine has been injured and off the floor since last Friday. He played a total of 62 minutes in four games in the preseason, averaging a modest 3.0 points and 5.0 boards.
The Celtics' offense looks more comfortable, more poised, more game-ready with Shaq on the floor. With Jermaine, they're still working out the kinks.
The sound bites have changed.
Here's what Shaq said after Wednesday night's finale about his adjustment to playing in Boston:
"I'm getting very comfortable. I've had the luxury to watch all these guys come in and watch their careers. We have been friends for a long time. I know where they want the ball and how they want the ball. I knew I was just going to fit in just fine when I came here."
And here's what Rivers said before Wednesday's game about Jermaine and his progress:
"We have to get him on the floor, obviously. It's not going to happen [Wednesday], and maybe not for the first couple of practices. So there is some concern about opening night, and what he can do for us. That's rest, that's injury, that's disappointing. He has not had the preseason we would have liked him to have."
You tell me who's in better shape.
Initially, the Celtics' two centers insisted that it didn't matter who started on opening night. Now it appears that it absolutely does matter, and that Shaquille O'Neal is the right man for the job. You might see a whole lot more moments of Shaq in the near future.