Shaq’s move adds twist to rivalry

As a registered 38, the caliber of Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow now falls below network Christmas-programming standards for his annual Los Angeles stare-down with the Lakers.

True, ABC will be in L.A. on Sunday, and ESPN rolled into the desert for Shaq’s Friday night reunion with the Phoenix Suns. But the attention-generating entity is O’Neal’s employer, the Boston Celtics, who are renting the NBA monolith to help make another run to the NBA Finals.

He doesn’t seem to mind.

"Father Time tapped me on the shoulder about three years ago," Shaq said of his evolution from the league’s most dominant player to supporting actor in an all-star cast. "It happens to everyone."

With Father Time making his move, O’Neal decided reality — and another chance at a ring — was nothing to ignore.

"I’ve always been a smart businessman," he said. "It feels good that I’m on a championship contender at 38. I don’t have to carry the load by myself."

In the good ol’ grudge-match days, a few verbal sparks would fly between Shaq and surviving Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant in the days leading up to the intersection of their egos. With O’Neal grinding toward Springfield, their collision course now exists as little more than a sidebar.

That doesn’t mean another Shaq-Kobe showdown is not without redeeming irony.

O’Neal will roll into Tinseltown wearing the green of the hated Celtics — that has to be worth something. In terms of potential karma disturbance, Lakers fans may consider this as alarming as Jack Nicholson landing the lead role in "The Red Auerbach Story."

"I haven’t really thought about it," O’Neal said when asked if it will feel odd to hit Staples Center in the uniform of the Lakers’ greatest historical rival. "When I was with the Lakers, our rivals were the Spurs, the Kings. . . . I didn’t have the opportunity to be part of that rivalry with the Celtics. It’s starting to pick back up."

The Celtics, who were not quite stellar during Shaq’s (potato) salad days in L.A., resurrected the rivalry by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, then whooping Kobe and his crew in the 2008 Finals.

After a one-year interlude to accompany KG’s knee injury, the Lakers returned the favor last June.

In L.A., watching Shaq play for anyone else in the twilight of his career would have been good for little more than a fond ovation and recollections of how he helped the Lakers snag three consecutive O’Brien trophies. Last year O’Neal was working for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who moved the Christmas meter in L.A. because of Kobe’s battle with LeBron James for dominion. Before that, Shaq played here for the Suns, who mustered only one victory in O’Neal’s four dates with the Lakers.

That was preceded by some serious bitterness while Shaq was enrolled with the Miami Heat, the team that helped O’Neal claim his last championship ring. Miami was 3-1 vs. the Lakers with Shaq, who put averages of 21 points and a dozen rebounds on L.A. With his hardly amicable departure to Florida fresh in everyone’s mind, those skirmishes moved the interest needle at Staples Center.

Fighting loyalty to its team and nostalgia for its former superstar, the crowd was engaged.

"I’m not sure," O’Neal said when asked to recall those first Heat trips to L.A. "I don’t remember. It (the reception) was probably 50-50."

Now he lines up for the Celtics, who, despite a run of injury through a large portion of the roster, have the feel of a top-tier threat for another Finals trip. Averaging 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds, O’Neal seems to have fit in seamlessly.

"We have four Hall of Famers on this team," he said. "Everyone knows their roles. Doc (Rivers) is the perfect coach."

In Friday’s prelude to another Celtics-Lakers party, Shaq, returning to active duty after a hip injury kept him on the sidelines for two games, hardly was reminiscent of Godzilla on another ambush of Tokyo. He managed five points and four rebounds after committing a couple of early fouls against the Suns’ Robin Lopez.

"I can say I’ve had an almost unblemished competitive career," O’Neal said before a Friday game that turned ugly pretty quickly for Boston in an 88-71 loss.

The Celtics couldn’t be accused of being competitive on the trip to Phoenix, so the previous statement can be dismissed until Shaq and his new teammates reconvene in L.A.