BOSTON -- The long-awaited return of Shaquille O'Neal enraptured the capacity crowd at TD Garden and appeared to bode well for the Boston Celtics as they readied for a playoff push. Absent since Feb. 1, a stretch of 27 games, O'Neal returned to action Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons and looked frisky and ready.
Then he promptly returned to inaction.
The joyous mood came to a stunning halt when O'Neal came up limping simply running down the floor in the first minute of the second quarter. He had trouble supporting himself as he headed to the bench, using a padded table to avoid falling down. He was clearly in discomfort.
He stumbled through the tunnel, hunched down, attended to by the Celtics' medical team. He played 5 minutes, 29 seconds, contributing 6 points and a rebound in the Celtics' 101-90 victory.
The Celtics said he suffered a right calf strain. While that is not as alarming as what many had feared (a reinjuring or tearing of his right Achilles, which had been the problem the last two months), it still means he won't be able to play his way into shape for the postseason, as originally hoped. No timetable was announced for a possible return.
O'Neal missed five games earlier this season with a bruised right calf. Teammate Kevin Garnett missed nine games with a strained right calf. And Von Wafer missed 13 games with a strained right calf. (What is it about this team and right calf injuries anyway?) Rivers said O'Neal's injury was similar to Wafer's, but not as severe.
"They hurt, I can tell you that," Wafer said. "He just needs to devote himself to rehab and getting back on the court. That's what I did."
Rivers said, "It's not a bad strain, but it is a strain." He said he did not think O'Neal would be out very long. He said the medical team thought it was "very minor."
Jermaine O'Neal, who now becomes the most important of the so-called "O'Neal brothers," said Shaq was not down in the dumps at halftime. Shaq left the building before the end of the game. "He seemed to be in good spirits," Jermaine said of Shaq. "He was laughing, joking."
That was the Shaq most of us expected to see postgame after witnessing his play in the final 4:43 of the first quarter. He looked terrific. He had a nifty spinning layup. He broke up an alley-oop pass and ended up in the baseline seats. He made all three of his shot attempts.
It was his 37th game of the season. The Celtics are 28-9 in those games.
"It was great. We had size," Rivers said. "It's amazing what size does."
Rivers then sent out Shaq to start the second quarter. Forty-nine seconds into it, Shaq was stumbling.
Now it's back to the waiting game again. With Shaq, given his age (39) and girth, it's hard to project. As Paul Pierce noted, "When you get to that age, those ones tend to hurt a little longer."
The playoffs begin in less than two weeks. Danny Ainge made it pretty clear that the return of Shaq was one of the reasons he felt comfortable trading Kendrick Perkins. It still may come to pass.
Before the incident, in anticipation of Shaq's return not only to action but also to a role of importance, Hall of Famer Hubie Brown said, "That, to me, is the key. Will Shaq come back and be able to give you 30 minutes? Because that's what Perkins would give you. That's so instrumental in playing the centers one-on-one and allowing your perimeter people to stay at home so you do not get hurt by the 3-point ball. So Shaq is a major piece here."
Shaq had not played in Boston since a Jan. 21 appearance against Utah, when he played six minutes. Since then, two North African countries have had their leaders resign due to protests in the streets, the northern part of Japan has been decimated by a tsunami and Charlie Sheen has gone from being merely crazy to a national punching bag, complete with "Tiger blood" and "Saturday Night Live" skits.
Rivers had a game plan in mind. Shaq was going to play a couple of stretches of five to seven minutes. Shaq was not going to play in each of the remaining seven games, maybe three or four. The idea was to get him some touches and have him as ready as possible for the playoffs.
"It's not the best way to do this, obviously, but we don't have a choice," Rivers said before the game.
Rivers said he was largely going by the advice of the team's medical people to get O'Neal back on the floor. Prior to the game, O'Neal was seen walking barefoot through the locker room. In the past 10 days, he had worn a protective boot on his right foot after receiving a cortisone shot.
"We were going to play him, regardless," Rivers said. "He was ready. He has been working out the last couple weeks. He hasn't gone down the bad road, which is good. So it's time to put him on the floor."
The silver lining in all this is, somewhat miraculously, the oft-injured Jermaine O'Neal. He started Sunday and had five points and six rebounds in nearly 18 minutes. He reported no problems with his surgically repaired left knee after his third game in four days following almost three months of idleness.
"I kept saying, [having] one of the O'Neal brothers is important," Rivers said. "And then [Nenad] Krstic is important. He has to be healthy." Krstic is due back on Tuesday.
"I'll take two, but we have to have one of the O'Neal brothers."
He hasn't had either of them very much. Shaq has missed 39 games, JO has missed 56. Sunday was the first time they have been able to play at the same time since Jan. 10. And it didn't last long.
Rivers is likely to have only one O'Neal for the short term, and he may eventually get them both again. That's better than it seemed while watching Shaq limp off the floor Sunday, when the notion of Rivers having two O'Neals at all this season was unthinkable.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.