If you told me Jermaine O’Neal was going to play 37 minutes in an NBA basketball game, I would have assumed A) his body would suffer internal combustion, B) his legs would snap in two, or C) he would die, literally. Instead, he registered a 15-point, 13-rebound, 5-block performance that didn’t just provide hope that O’Neal could play big playoff minutes, but, more importantly, provided hope that he could play meaningful playoff minutes.
His offense was impressive (or at least decent; shooting six for fifteen isn’t ideal), but his defensive presence should cause Boston fans the most joy. When his body functions at mediocre levels or better, Jermaine’s capable of protecting the paint the way Nenad Krstic can’t. To the video we go:
Here, John Wall bursts past Von Wafer. One of the NBA’s fastest and quickest point guards, Wall’s a tough cover. But O’Neal rotates over to step into his path, forcing a tough shot. Notice also Jeff Green’s rotation, which took away a possible dump-off pass to JaVale McGee and put Green in good position to rebound a miss. Alas, there was no rebound. O’Neal blocks Wall’s tough shot off Wall’s leg, saving a bucket and giving Boston the ball.
O’Neal’s next block came in the second quarter:
After O’Neal and Jeff Green collide in pick-and-roll coverage, Green gets caught out of position hedging the pick-and-roll. O’Neal notices this and recovers to defend Green’s man. Mo Evans initially beats O’Neal baseline, but O’Neal’s quickness (of sorts) and timing allow him to make up the ground and block Evans’ shot. What could have (should have?) become an easy layup is erased by O’Neal’s strong help.
He showed more strong help in the third quarter:
There’s just so much good going on here. First, O’Neal hedges the Jordan Crawford pick-and-roll perfectly. There’s not much Crawford likes to do more than shooting a basketball, but O’Neal takes away that option entirely with quick feet and solid positioning. He then rotates back to defend Kevin Seraphin, but when the Wizards run another pick-and-roll on the other side of the court, O’Neal rotates (again!) to defend Yi Jianlian in the corner. The Wizards run a third straight pick-and-roll, and O’Neal quickly moves to deny Mo Evans. If you’re counting at home, that’s three straight pick-and-rolls O’Neal helped thwart.
Other times, he blocked shots when Boston’s team defense wasn’t so perfect:
Here, it looks like Carlos Arroyo calls to ask Jeff Green for a switch. But then Arroyo either A) completely loses his man, B) doesn’t care at all about defending his man, C) starts daydreaming in the fourth quarter of a close NBA game, or D) all of the above. Othyus Jeffers cuts behind Arroyo and in front of Green (who had switched, like Arroyo asked him to), and has an easy path to the hoop. Jeffers rises for the dunk … but O’Neal quickly snuffs out his plan.
Was O’Neal perfect yesterday? No. But he provided an interior presence and, more importantly, an intelligent interior presence. With Shaq’s health far from promised, Kendrick Perkins elsewhere and Nenad Krstic apparently incapable, the Celtics need someone who can protect the rim. After months of wondering whether O’Neal would contribute anything this season, he might actually be that guy.