By Bill Burt
BOSTON — Shaquille O'Neal may have worn a Boston Celtics uniform for the last time.
In what would be a crippling blow to their chances of winning a title, the Celtics are going forward as if the affable center won't be returning to team for the playoffs, according to an NBA source.
It means the other O'Neal — Jermaine, who has had knee problems since opening day, will be the go-to big man with Glen Davis and Nenad Krstic as his backups.
The Celtics came to this conclusion after Shaq failed to complete one simple sprint up and down the court during a "conditioning test" on Saturday, before he limped off the court in Waltham.
The Celtics held out a slim hope Shaq would be able to make his return in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Knicks or possibly in the conference semifinals, if they advanced.
"If he were to come back, it would have to be a miraculous recovery," said the source, who requested anonymity. "And at his age (he turned 39 on March 6) and physical condition, the Celtics have planned accordingly."
A few days ago, Celtics coach Doc Rivers alluded to the possibility, saying his team could win a championship without the oft-injured center.
Shaq had been averaging 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20 minutes a game and made the Celtics a top threat to win their 18th title.
His play was a major reason the Celtics took a risk and traded center Kendrick Perkins on Feb. 24 — for Krstic and Jeff Green.
After playing 16 minutes vs. Sacramento on Feb. 1, he was out until April 3. He looked healthy and showed signs of dominance with six points on 3-of-3 shooting in his comeback vs. Detroit. But he crumpled in pain due to a right calf injury and has been out since.
Shaq has been injury-prone almost since the season opened, hurting his knee against the New York Knicks on Oct. 29, missing the next five games.
But it was on Dec. 5 in New Jersey when O'Neal's right calf and Achilles area started acting up. He played the next game against Denver in Boston, but missed the next four games.
That injury didn't get much publicity because the Celtics were in the midst of a 14-game winning streak, including four straight without the ex-LSU sensation.
O'Neal's injury acted up again on Jan. 21 against the Jazz, forcing him to miss the next three games. It was his third game back on Feb. 1, in Sacramento, that the injury went from nagging to serious.
Since that game, O'Neal has played five minutes, missing 29 games, including last night's win over the Knicks.
While Shaq has another year remaining in his contract, the source said retirement is all but a certainty after the numerous injuries this season.
It was a disappointing way to end his time here, which included many off-court charitable endeavors on the Celtics' behalf. He had become a fan favorite.
Shaq was pretty good on the court, too, when he played. More importantly, according to Rivers recently, he was a big presence "on both ends of the floor."
"The only saving grace was he didn't cost them a lot of money," said the source.