By David Willis
BOSTON — He's the NBA's most eclectic character. The man who has starred in movies, released albums, has his own TV show and showed up at Harvard Square to play a statue last week. Oh, and was once one of the most dominant big men in NBA history.
So what were the odds Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't make his first basket as a Boston Celtic count?
Just moments into yesterday's season-opener, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo served up an alley-oop pass, and Shaq discovered the fountain of youth, elevating to throw the ball down with vintage authority.
Thank goodness the NBA reinforces its baskets (one of the reasons it does is because of the young backboard-wrecking Shaq!) or someone could have been hurt. That dunk kicked off an impressed debut for O'Neal with the Green.
"Shaq was great," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "He softened the defense tonight. He was able to get to the line. (Rajon) Rondo got into the paint and he finished it off. He didn't play big minutes, but he was very effective."
Starting at center, the Big Shamrock had nine points and seven rebounds in just 18:09, causing the crowd to go crazy every time he entered the game, and giving him an ovation every time he left the court.
"He was huge for us," said Paul Pierce. "The numbers don't tell the story of how big he was. Shaq drew about five fouls and got them into the penalty, and that is what his presence brings.
"I think him and Kevin (Garnett) are really feeding off each other. I think he opens up things for Kevin and Kevin opens him up. I think that's where our greatest strength is, and I'm glad he's on our team."
Two possessions after his first dunk, O'Neal again tested the strength of the backboard and rim. After pulling down a rebound, he used his considerable girth to clear out the paint, then slammed the ball through the hoop with the power that only the massive Shaq can bring, evoking the memories of his days in Orlando and Los Angeles — if only for a second.
There were some down moments too, like when he tried to duplicate the aforementioned dunk, only to come up short and find only the front of the rim. In typical fashion, he also shot just 3 for 7 from the line.
But, for much of his time on the court, it was not the slow Shaq that played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns in previous seasons. And, like always, the fans embraced him.
"I felt like a true Celtic from my first press conference," said O'Neal. "I wanted to come out and play my game, get a couple early shots. I missed a couple chippies, but that's OK."
He may not be the player of five-or-so years ago, but if Shaq can continue to provide that presence, it could make life much easier for the Celtics, and still make a few hoops a little nervous.
Far from twins
They may have adopted (or stolen) the "Big 3" nickname, but Ray Allen wasn't about to compare the newly-assembled Miami Heat to the 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics.
"I don't think they're anything like we were," said Allen.
It is inevitable that this season's Heat would be likened to the title-winning Celtics. But Allen said that the team is hardly a carbon copy of the Celtics title squad.
"We're much different," he said. "What I do and what Paul does is a lot different from what Dwyane Wade and LeBron (James) do, and what Kevin does is different from (Chris) Bosh. And I don't know what there personality is yet."
Perk at work
Make no mistake, it was killing Kendrick Perkins to be on the bench last night.
"If I had my choice, I'd be out there," said Perkins with a laugh. "If you have a love for the game, you want to be out there more than anything."
The Celtics' starting center is, of course, out indefinitely after surgery on the torn ACL he suffered during the NBA Finals last season. But as frustrated as he was about being sidelined, Perkins felt optimistic about his rehab.
"I probably feel better than my knee really is," he said. "But it's going good. A lot of squats and a lot of leg work.
"Rehab really depends on who you are. A mentally tough person can get through it. If you're a person that just wants to sit back and have people feel sorry for you, then it's going to be a tough road. If you're willing to put your heart into it, you can come back better than ever."
Perkins is eyeing a return to the court in January, and is putting his time out of the lineup to good use.
"I've been putting a lot of time into my body and my shooting touch," said Perkins. "I've been hitting 300 free throws a day. Last season I was making about 30 a day, knowing I should be doing more. When you get hurt, you get a greater appreciation for the game."
Friends until game time
Jermaine O'Neal admits he remains friends with members of Miami, where he played last season and half of the 2008-09 season, But he said there were no high-5s with old friends Wade and Udonis Haslem once the game was underway.
"We are still friends," said O'Neal. "But they know that I'm going to hate them while the game is on. We still text and stuff, but not today. Not on game day. They're the enemy on game day."
Big game? Call Big Baby
There was an NBA Final vibe around the TD Garden last night, so it was only appropriate Glen "Big Baby" Davis would find his groove.
The goofy bigman finished third on the C's with 13 points — on 6-of-7 shooting — with five rebounds and some tough defense. His best was an 8-foot fade-away jumper in the third quarter.
"Baby was big," said Allen. "He was very tough under the basket, and got a few big rebounds for us. I have a great sense of the inside and outside attack, and he had lots of open room with us shooting from the outside, and took advantage."
• • •
Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.