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Star-studded Celtics meshing on and off court

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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP)

Kevin Garnett flashed a rare public smile. Kendrick Perkins replaced his customary grimace with a grin. Paul Pierce kept laughing.

Shaquille O'Neal is starting training camp with the Boston Celtics and his teammates are nearly giddy with delight.

''Shaq is going to be Shaq, all the publicity and all the circus that's going to come with it,'' Pierce said Monday. ''He's one of the biggest stars that this game has ever seen, so you've got to expect it. I'm happy to have the opportunity to say I have a chance to play with him and just be in the locker room with him.''

And what a locker room it will be.

The rapping and comedic stylings of ''Shaq Diesel.'' The goofiness of Glen ''Big Baby'' Davis and Nate Robinson. The intensity and verbosity of Garnett. The seriousness of Ray Allen. The head-shaking of Pierce as he takes it all in.

And the head-scratching of coach Doc Rivers as he tries to make it work.

''I hope it's easy. I have a feeling it's not going to be,'' Rivers said the day before the official start of training camp in Newport, R.I. ''We have a lot of personalities. There's no doubt about that, probably more than we've ever had. Having said that, I also think this is the most talented group we've had, as far as deep on the bench.''

Chances are O'Neal will be part of that bench, and he has no complaints about it as he enters his 20th NBA season. He already played a subordinate role last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.

''My first 17 years were all about me and scoring,'' he said. ''That part of my game is over now. It's time for me to be a damn good role player.''

With the Big 3 of Pierce, Garnett and Allen returning for their fourth season as teammates, the 345-pound O'Neal is a Very Big 4th on a team that came close to its second NBA title in three years before blowing a 13-point lead in the second half and losing Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers, 83-79.

''I don't think you ever get over it,'' said Rivers, who thinks it can motivate his team. ''It has to push you a little bit.''

There was a point soon after that game that Rivers felt he would step down as coach to watch his children play for their college teams.

''I was, at that time, leaning heavily to not coming back,'' he said.

If that had happened, Pierce said, the Celtics probably wouldn't have signed Shaq or re-signed Allen and Robinson. Pierce, himself, said he would have had ''a tougher decision'' on whether to return. Instead, he briefly opted out of his contract then signed a four-year deal.

''The locker room's going to be fun because you have a lot of strong personalities, but you've got a lot of good personalities,'' Pierce said, ''and that's a good thing. The guys are going to mesh well together.''

Boston's rebounding problems were costly against the Lakers, especially after Perkins hurt his knee in Game 6. He's not expected back until February so the Celtics signed the 7-foot-1 Shaq and 6-11 Jermaine O'Neal to two-year contracts.

Perkins made it clear, in a good-humored way, that the starting center job is his when he's healthy.

''I don't want to start nothing, but, really, my spot is not up for grabs,'' he said. ''When I come back I will be in my spot and then everybody else just has to adjust to me after that.''

Meanwhile, Shaq looked good in pickup games last week with some of his teammates.

''In one pickup game he got three fastbreak layups,'' Pierce said. ''You hardly hear about Shaq getting fastbreak layups.''

Maybe it's his offseason diet.

He said he's cut back on hamburgers, fried chicken and cornbread. But he might partake of a local favorite if, as he said, he brings his television show ''Shaq vs.'' to Boston. In previous episodes, he swam against Michael Phelps and played golf with Charles Barkley.

''Me and you in a clam chowder eating contest,'' he challenged one reporter.

For all the joking, the Celtics are very serious about pursuing the 18th NBA title in team history.

To do that, they'll have to get past the Miami Heat and their Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and then the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, whose five championship rings are one more than Shaq's collection, a fact Bryant has pointed out.

''I heard it my whole career. I've been the measuring stick for excellence,'' Shaq said. ''So I'm glad to see I'm still relevant. But I would have been more upset, more hurt if Tim Duncan would have made the comment. I don't compete with guards. They have the ball more than I do. They shoot way more than I do.

''I'm only competing with Tim Duncan. Hopefully, I can get No. 5 before Tim Duncan.''

To reach the NBA finals, the Celtics must stop James' quest for his first championship, and Garnett welcomes the challenge.

''We're not going to back down from anything,'' he said. ''I'm really excited. I don't like us. I love us.''

Tagged: Celtics, Lakers, Heat, Spurs, Paul Pierce, Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kendrick Perkins, Nate Robinson

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