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MIAMI -- Out of the 16 games -- preseason and regular season combined -- the Boston Celtics have played this season, Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal have suited up together on just two occasions, leading some like Ray Allen to develop conspiracy theories.
"Ray looked at me the other day and said, 'Are you guys playing tag or something?'" Jermaine O'Neal said with a laugh before sitting out Boston's practice session Wednesday morning at the American Airlines Arena. "He said, 'We do have more than one O'Neal jersey, so you guys can play together.'"
|The Celtics have been struggling to get Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal, both of whom have knee injuries, on the floor at the same time.|
Yes, the O'Neals seemingly have taken turns wearing their finest suits on the sideline to start the season. That said, the Celtics have had at least one O'Neal on the floor to start all 16 of those same games.
That could change Thursday night, when the Celtics visit the Miami Heat for a rematch of the season opener. Celtics coach Doc Rivers suggested it was "likely" both O'Neals would sit out with their matching knee ailments. Shaq's right knee is sore from a collision with Amare Stoudemire last month, while Jermaine's left knee remains troublesome after initially swelling following a game last month in Cleveland. (Thursday update: Shaq likely to play; Jermaine likely out).
After missing five straight games, Shaq returned to the practice court for the first time Wednesday, hoping to gauge his ability to play. He lasted the entire session and departed with a Shaq-sized ice wrap over the tender right knee. The Celtics will evaluate his progress at Thursday's morning shootaround, but of the two, he's probably more likely to play against the Heat.
Jermaine, who took himself out of the second half of Monday's loss to the Mavericks, did not participate in Wednesday's practice and said he'll have to wait to see how his knee responds overnight before a decision can be made on his availability.
It should come as no surprise that both players admitted Wednesday that their decisions about whether to play will be based largely on the status of the other. While Allen might have been joking about playing as a tag team, it sure seems like the O'Neals have been passing the game-uniform baton this season.
"I think that's the reason why, even when I had a procedure done, then I played, because we didn't have Shaq," Jermaine O'Neal said, remaining a bit cryptic about a procedure he underwent recently to reduce the swelling in his left knee. Pressed on the topic, he dubbed it a "small" procedure that typically would require a couple of days of rest.
But he didn't have a couple of days, which is why he thrust himself back into action after the procedure and might have set back his recovery. He labored at times during Sunday's victory in Oklahoma City and removed himself from Monday's loss in Dallas when he said he thought he might be hurting the team by trying to play through the pain.
"Without telling you too much, you need a couple days to let [the procedure] heal and let it calm down," he said. "I took a day, not even a full day, and played; maybe that was my first mistake."His knee wrapped in white gauze Wednesday, he got a second day off (the team did not practice Tuesday). He said he thinks that might help him get back on the court.
Fortunately for the O'Neals, Rivers envisioned this sort of scenario -- although probably not this early in the season -- and is ready to gut out the times when the two veteran centers are not available. Incumbent starting center Kendrick Perkins is out until midseason recovering from -- what else? -- a knee injury of his own.
So the Celtics will lean on their younger bigs -- rookie Semih Erden and Glen Davis, who is thriving in his sixth-man role this season.
"We knew that before the year, if we were honest with ourselves," Rivers said. "It's just what it is. We're trying to get Semih as many minutes as possible. When [the O'Neals] are both healthy and both playing, we're really good. We just haven't had that this year. So for us, we have to get through it. Obviously, it's a little earlier than we anticipated, but we're prepared for it."
And what if the O'Neals cannot get on the court together soon? Would the team look outside its own backyard?
"Well, we have 15 guys, No. 1, so if we did that, we'd have to release someone, which we would do," Rivers said. "But one thing we've all learned is there's usually not a lot of bigs wandering around. There's just not a lot out there. So we just have to get them healthy, as much as possible, because we have to win games in the regular season as well."
The Celtics see their frontcourt depth -- when healthy -- as an advantage over the Heat, a team they could see a lot more of in the postseason. And, in a way, not having a healthy lineup has allowed Boston to keep some of its playbook under wraps.
"Eventually, we're going to need our big guys," Jermaine O'Neal said. "We're going to need Shaq to go in the post. We haven't even hit that dimension yet, which is fine. We understand why we haven't. But I think that's what Danny Ainge was thinking about when he signed both of us. A situation where, if one of us missed time, one of us could be out there."
Until they both can get healthy, the game of tag goes on.Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.