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Thursday, March 10, 2011
Bigs problem is a small one for Celtics

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

It's a line that could have just as easily been uttered after Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers glanced at the box score after Wednesday's loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and declared a need for one more big man.

"Just one extra big is all we needed," Rivers said. "But we don't have it with the injuries. This has nothing to do with the [Kendrick Perkins] trade or anything; we just don't have healthy bigs. Hopefully [Glen Davis] will be back soon."

That lack of an extra big man left Boston's starting frontcourt of Kevin Garnett and Nenad Krstic walking on eggshells on Wednesday. With no true backups, Rivers had told the pair to avoid early foul trouble, so instead of hacking away at Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan and making him earn his points at the free-throw line (where he boasts a cringe-worthy 40.3 career percentage), they watched him test the hoop supports with a series of rim-rattling jams.

Glen Davis
With Glen Davis out the past few games, the Celtics have become even thinner with bigs.

Jordan finished 9-of-10 shooting from the floor for 21 points -- four times his career scoring average (5.4 points per game) -- despite hitting just 3-of-7 free throws. Garnett and Krstic, meanwhile, used up a mere seven of their 12 available fouls on the night.

To be sure, this isn't exactly a new problem for a Boston team that's big men have missed a combined 130 games this season. Shaquille O'Neal (26 missed games) and Jermaine O'Neal (45 missed games) have both had multiple trips to the shelf, while Glen Davis is sidelined for the first time this season, missing the past three games with a strained patella tendon in his left knee.

Meanwhile, Troy Murphy is still shaking rust from a two-month NBA layoff and Jeff Green is just trying to stop his head from spinning as the Celtics move him all over the floor, attempting to figure out his best fit.

All of which adds up to a bigs problem for Boston. Where have you gone, Chris Johnson?

On one hand, you have to admire Rivers for sticking to his "let's get healthy" guns. Davis and Shaq have both said in recent days that if this were the playoffs, they'd be on the court. If Boston was desperate enough for a big man, one of the two could have dressed Wednesday (Davis more likely than Shaq, but both appear to be closing in on returns).

While certainly not the goal, Rivers remains willing to absorb a loss that could hinder his team's chances of earning that all-so-important top seed in the Eastern Conference if it betters his team's chances of being completely healthy when the games matter most.

But how confident can Boston be that its big men will be healthy come mid-April? Even if they get the O'Neals back on the court, they haven't exactly proven that they'll be able to stay there this season.

While it's not the stars who are dinged up, Boston is operating a lot like last season, trying to power up its video game health meter for the most daunting portion of its schedule. One in which it doesn't have the benefit of extra lives to fall back on.

So what do we make of Boston's big men as we near the final month of the regular season? From the short glimpses inside the walls of the team's practice facility, it sure seems like Boston is putting its centers through a bit of a Celebrity Fit Club.

Both Shaq and Davis have mentioned in recent days that they're trying to drop weight in order to ease the wear and tear on their injured lower bodies. Jermaine O'Neal hasn't even been seen since undergoing knee surgery last month, and it's a good bet he's being whipped into the best shape possible just hoping he can navigate from early April to mid-June.

In a way, it's a testament to Boston's core that the Celtics have been able to send their gas guzzlers to the shop for some bodywork but have rarely relented their lead position in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

If there's panic about whether the Celtics will have enough bigs to compete with those rivals with vaunted frontcourts, Boston players and coaches don't count themselves among that group. Appearing on Boston sports radio WEEI (850 AM) on Thursday, Shaq swatted away a query about how Boston might defend Orlando's Dwight Howard in the post-Perk era.

"We have enough bigs," Shaq said. "I'm going to play [Howard] straight up. Jermaine will play him and Krstic is going to play him."

Added Shaq: "We'll be full strength here very soon. We know what's at hand."

What's at hand is a "world title or bust" mentality. Having a bigs problem during Game 62 is a small problem to the Celtics. They'd rather have one big man too many in June.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.