After yesterday’s 105-103 Celtics win, Doc Rivers called Jermaine O’Neal “absolutely sensational.”
“I thought Jermaine O’Neal was absolutely huge for us,” Rivers said. “We left him out there, he defended Tim [Duncan] one-on-one for the most part, he got blocks, he gave us defensive energy. He was absolutely sensational.”
Absolutely sensational? Eh, I don’t know if I’d go that far. But I guess it’s all about expectations. When you expect O’Neal to provide little-to-nothing, anything he offers can be considered sensational (though I would argue he was far from “sensational,” even though I was pleased by his efforts).
Looking ahead to Jermaine O’Neal at the beginning of the season, very few folks would have been pleased by a four-point, five-rebound effort. But this is January now, O’Neal has already aggravated quite a few fans in Boston, and so we are more than willing to accept a night when he notches more fouls than either points or rebounds.
Why are we so pleased to accept such a (statistically, at least) mediocre night? Because O’Neal displayed a pulse. Because he was actually on the court. Because, for one night at least, he didn’t look like a zombie.
I joke at O’Neal’s expense, because he’s come far short of fulfilling his promise. But, in all honesty, he’s starting to turn his season around. There was one play last night when Duncan isolated in the low post. O’Neal was all alone against the greatest power forward ever to walk this earth, with no double-team present and none on the way. Duncan went into his move, and ended up running across the lane for a sweeping hook that Spurs fans have seen for longer than a decade. Except there was O’Neal, moving his feet to stay with Duncan. There was O’Neal, timing the shot perfectly. There was O’Neal’s long arm, extending to contest the shot. The hook shot bounded off the rim, and I sat at home thinking, “Ahh. Now I remember why I was so excited to sign J.O. in the first place.”
There was also another play, a far less memorable play by any means. O’Neal caught the ball on the wing, and he jab-stepped his defender. The defender bit on the fake, and O’Neal let fly an 18- or 19-foot jumper. It caromed harmlessly off the back rim, and he was rewarded no points for his efforts. But it wasn’t the results which surprised me. Aging big men missing long jumpers has become something of a mainstay in Boston the past two seasons.
What surprised me was the life in O’Neal’s legs. Earlier this season, I can remember watching O’Neal execute the same jab step. It was like his feet were anchored to the ground, as if he had twelve sacks of potatoes tied to his heels and glue on the bottom of his shoe’s soles. Not yesterday. There was actual bounce in O’Neal’s step. Real bounce. Not Amare bounce, or Blake Griffin bounce, but bounce nonetheless. O’Neal is beginning to regain his athleticism.
“He’s starting to get his legs up under him,” said Paul Pierce. “This is like his fourth or fifth game back, so the good thing about J.O. is you see him getting better each and every game. You can tell he’s getting in better shape, he’s getting in a better rhythm, he’s understanding what we’re doing out there. I think as we go along, he’s going to play more and more. He was huge tonight. He really changed the game there on the inside, clogging up the middle, blocking shots. Even the threat to take some charges; he’s a great presence to have coming off the bench.”
He was huge? Absolutely sensational? Methinks Pierce and Rivers went a little overboard with their praise. But O’Neal’s improving, and it’s easy to see. It’s not difficult to envision a day in the near future when O’Neal becomes the impact player we expected from day one. (It’s also not difficult to envision a day in the near future when O’Neal finds himself stricken by a season-ending injury, but I digress.)
For now, we should be pleased with his improvements and look forward to more in the future. Maybe we should have held off on the harsh criticism. He’s dealt with injuries since all the way back in training camp, after all. (Then again, maybe injuries are his destiny. At the very least, they’re always a concern.) Oh, well. As you can probably tell, I’m conflicted about O’Neal’s prospects for the remainder of the season. But for now, things are beginning to look up.
“I thought we’d get this out of him, but I didn’t see it happening this qu–” Doc Rivers said, before excitedly forgetting to finish the word quickly. “I’m shocked by that, honestly. Watching him move right before we activated him and seeing him play now, I think he might have been holding out on us.”
Holding out? No, I strongly doubt it. O’Neal isn’t like Rasheed Wallace; he doesn’t have a “the regular season sucks” mentality.
But is he getting better? No doubt. Let’s just hope he can stay healthy, so his returns can continue to grow.