INDEPENDENCE —If Cavaliers center Shaquille O’Neal is going to return to action prior to the playoffs, it won’t be before the regular-season finale against Atlanta.
That was the word from coach Mike Brown following a light practice Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Brown was asked if there was any chance O’Neal, out since injuring his right thumb on Feb. 25 in Boston, would play Sunday against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic and said no.
He was then asked if O’Neal would play in the season finale Wednesday against the Hawks and said there was a “better chance,” but quickly added he didn’t “know what the percentages of that are.”
“If he can go and blow it out (conditioning-wise) a little bit, I’m all for it,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to rush anybody.”
O’Neal, who once again turned down an interview request, has started participating in scripted parts of practice, but the 38-year-old has not yet been through full-blown contact drills.
The 7-foot-1, 325-pound center appears to be in very good shape, however, and the Cavaliers are not overly concerned about having to re-adapt to his presence should he not play before the playoffs.
“We’ll be OK,” shooting guard Anthony Parker said. “Some of the sets might be different, but it’s not like this is the first time Shaq’s been with the team.”
With O’Neal still out and guards Delonte West (minor back spasms) and Daniel Gibson (sprained mid-foot) also not expected to play tonight in Chicago, Brown expects to keep his starting lineup intact.
“I don’t have a ton of ballhandlers after that besides Mo (Williams), LeBron (James) and A.P.,” the coach said. “I’ve got to be a little careful who I sit out.”
A home game against Indiana the following night will likely be a different story, with James, Williams, Parker and/or Antawn Jamison all possibilities to get the evening off.
“I’ll sit some guys Friday,” Brown said. “It’s a back-to-back. A lot depends on who plays a lot of minutes (tonight).”
After the Pacers game, the Cavaliers host Orlando on Sunday and Atlanta on Wednesday, with the playoffs to begin that weekend.
“We can use this time to get better, but also to get a little rest,” Parker said. “We’ll see how Coach walks that line.
“I wouldn’t mind (sitting out). If Coach asked me to sit down, I wouldn’t have any objections. But I also wouldn’t mind playing.”
Prior to a win over Toronto on Tuesday, Brown said the Cavaliers, who have locked up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, would treat their remaining regular-season games as “high-level practices.”
The reigning NBA Coach of the Year went home later in the evening to see his picture and quote splashed across the screen on SportsCenter, but reiterated Wednesday he would not “compromise” his players in an all-out attempt to win in the regular season.
“I respect everybody for taking my comments and running with them,” Brown said. “It was kind of cute.”
James, who had 19 points against the Raptors, lost his lead in the league scoring race later in the evening when Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant had a season-high 45 in a 140-139 overtime loss to the Utah Jazz. Durant is averaging 29.9 points. James, the reigning scoring champion who has claimed retaining the title is not important to him, is at 29.7.
James is averaging a league-best 31.0 points on the road this season. He is attempting to average 30-plus points away from home for the third straight seasons.
The small forward is 1-of-15 on 3-pointers over his last four games, including an 0-of-9 performance Sunday in Boston.
With West and Gibson expected to be sidelined tonight, there’s a chance Sebastian Telfair will be active tonight for the first time since being acquired in the Feb. 17 trade that brought Jamison to Cleveland. Telfair, who is coming back from a serious groin injury, had not been cleared to play by team doctors as of Wednesday afternoon, but Brown said the point guard was “close” to being ready.
With a win tonight, the Cavaliers will tie the franchise record for road victories in a season set a year ago. Cleveland is a league-best 26-13 away from home.
The Cavaliers (61-17), who won a franchise-record 66 games last year, are the first team to record the best record in the NBA in back-to-back years since the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.