Shaquille O'Neal took nearly two weeks to recover from a bruise on his knee. So you'd better believe that when he finally returned to the Celtics at the close of their four-game South road trip, he'd do his comeback right.
You'd be correct.
After taking one game down in Miami on Thursday night to shake off the cobwebs and play his way back into game shape, the Celtics' 38-year-old center came through Saturday with a breakout performance against the Memphis Grizzlies. He gave the Celtics 18 points, six rebounds, a block and a steal, dominating in the low post and playing his overall most impressive game in Celtic green.
"Shaq was phenomenal tonight," coach Doc Rivers said after the Celtics' 116-110 overtime win in Memphis. "I thought this was maybe his best game with us. He's even making free throws, so you know the stars are lined up for you. Overall, I thought Shaq played great."
The Celtics made a point of going to Shaq early. They found a mismatch from the very beginning — the big fella was matched up with the wire-thin 7-footer Marc Gasol — and they exploited it. Shaq played his usual six minutes to start the game before being lifted for Glen Davis, and over that stretch, he was the predominant option in the Celtics' offense. He took seven of Boston's 14 shots, and he first sat down with six points and three rebounds already to his name. Even the Celtics' leading scorers, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, were passing up easily makable shots to create looks for Shaq.
This didn't happen in the old days. With Kendrick Perkins manning the low post over the years, and with Jermaine O'Neal making a few starts at center this season, the Celtics are used to the center position being defensive in nature, anchoring the C's rotations and acting as an enforcer in the low post.
But the Celtics' offense changes dramatically when it's fueled by the Diesel.
"It's great, especially the intimidation factor that we get with him in the game," Rivers said. "He gives us a presence that we haven't had. There's no doubt about that. I told him that after the Miami game — when you see him on the floor, it really changes our team. It makes us bigger, and it makes us better."
Unsurprisingly, Shaq's playing time has been limited this season, and consistently so. His minute totals in the five games that he's played so far: 18, 21, 23, 21, 22. He's basically on the Yao Ming diet.
Rivers has turned situationally to Glen Davis to give him energy off the bench, and a little more versatility on both ends of the floor. Davis is the more mobile big man. But the C's will have to work this season to strike a balance between Big Baby and the Big Aristotle.
"If the game's right, Shaq will be in," Rivers said. "But I just think defensively right now, [Davis is in] our best unit. And offensively, Baby knows everything, from last year and this year. We can run our stuff. That's why you have Baby in."
The Celtics might not have a stable crunch-time five that they can rely on every single night when the game's close. There will be moments when Shaq fills the center role best, and other moments when Big Baby is the better fit.
But at this point in the season, the simple fact that Shaq is an option can be considered a moral victory. Despite all the injuries and all the setbacks, the big fella is emerging as an impact player. Saturday night in Memphis was a big breakthrough.