Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal Injuries Prove Celtics Frontcourt May Not Be So Deep After All


Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal Injuries Prove Celtics Frontcourt May Not Be So Deep After All Lost in the shuffle of all the positive shorelines from Friday night’s win over the Knicks — Rajon Rondo‘s 24 assists, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce‘s double-doubles, the team’s resolve in the fourth quarter — was one startling revelation: Suddenly, the Celtics are running low on big men.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. When the C’s fell to the Lakers in Game 7 of the Finals last June, their biggest flaw was exposed — they didn’t have the size to match up with a bulky front line. They addressed that problem by adding two All-Star centers over the summer. Kendrick Perkins, together with newcomers Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, formed a set of “triplet towers” unseen in Boston in a long time.

But things have come undone in the first week of the regular season. The Celtics were already without Perkins, out until at least January with a torn ACL. Now the O’Neals are starting to show wear and tear as well.

Shaquille was removed from the game Friday night after a collision with Knicks star Amare Stoudemire. He says he hurt his “right fibula head,” and his status for the Celtics’ game Tuesday night in Detroit is now in doubt.

“It didn’t look good,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I could tell you that when he was walking off the floor.”

As for Jermaine, he wasn’t even on the active roster for Friday night — J.O. has experienced knee pain this week, and further swelling Friday led to Rivers deactivating him.

With two O’Neals injured, this poses a problem.

“You know, I hope it doesn?t happen,” Rivers said. “But we anticipate it could happen, one or two games — that neither one is available. We just hope it?s not for a long stretch.?

It’s certainly good timing that the C’s have three days off between games, giving both veteran centers a chance to recuperate. But with aging big men with a lot of mileage on them, three days isn’t always enough to walk off a minor injury. The Celtics are facing a very real possibility that all three of their centers will be unable to go next week.

If that’s the case, Rivers says, Glen Davis will get the start. And for a Celtics team that put such emphasis on size this summer, starting Big Baby at the center position has to be a disappointment — Davis is generously listed at 6-foot-9 but probably stands closer to 6-foot-6 in reality. He’s become more of a perimeter-oriented player this season than ever, hoisting up 15- and 18-foot jump shots in an effort to space the floor for Shaq and the rest of the offense.

Big Baby isn’t a center. It’s not where he naturally fits, and it’s not where he prefers to be. And considering the guy already griped earlier this preseason about his inconsistent role on the Celtics’ depth chart, it’s probably not ideal chemistry-wise to move him to center three games into the season.

But out of necessity, we could see it happen soon.

The Celtics have gone small a lot lately, but only for short stretches. We’ve seen them trot out lineups where Davis is the center, or where guys like Paul Pierce and Marquis Daniels, small forwards at best, are forced to play on the block. It’s a tactic that can work situationally — it helps the Celtics keep up with younger, more athletic teams like the ones they’ve played this week.

But these injuries have really forced Rivers’ hand, and having Davis as the first option at center is a scary proposition.

The Celtics learned last spring that good teams are beaten by winning the war inside — the big numbers are rebounds, second-chance points and points in the paint. By going small this year, the C’s are falling behind in that department.

Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge brought in the “O’Neal brothers” this summer to make the Celtics bigger, stronger and ultimately better. That plan is coming undone a lot faster than expected.

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