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O’Neal Struggling to Achieve Celtics Success

When Jermaine O’Neal [1] looks at Kevin Garnett [2] and Ray Allen [3], he can’t help but get frustrated.

Garnett and Allen were able to hit the ground running in their first season with the Boston Celtics [4], starting off 20-2 en route to the first NBA Championships of their career. For O’Neal, his debut season with the Toronto Raptors [5] has anything but a joyride.

‘€œIt’s been kind of a roller coaster for me,’€ he said. ‘€œAnd it’s been hard.’€

This summer O’Neal was traded to the Raptors from the Indiana Pacers [6], a year after Garnett’s blockbuster trade to the Celtics. The move paired O’Neal with dominating big man Chris Bosh and positioned the Raptors as an Eastern Conference contender. Like the Celtics, the Raptors united unfulfilled All-Stars in hopes of winning a title.

‘€œYou try not to base your career and your success off of somebody else’s,’€ O’Neal said. ‘€œA lot of people can say, ‘I want it to be like this,’ but it’s not necessarily like that. [The Celtics] definitely have put together a format on how to do it, for sure. Sometimes you’re not able to go that route. You’ve got to take another route and that’s the route that I’m on.’€

That route isn’t leading to success yet for the Raptors. O’Neal has been trying to fit into their system since early this summer when he spent most of his offseason at Joe Abunassar’s Impact Basketball Training Centre in Las Vegas under the watchful eye of head coach Sam Mitchell.

In spite of the extra training, the Raptors are 4-3 this season and O’Neal is still unsure of his role. Just as Celtics head coach Doc Rivers [7] tried to balance minutes last season, Mitchell has cut O’Neal’s to around 30 a game. This decreased time on the court has made it tough for him to gel with his new teammates who play a different style of basketball than the Pacers.

‘€œIt’s hard too because you don’t really get consistent minutes when you’ve got Andrea Bargnani, who we’re trying to fit in too, so we’re really sharing minutes,’€ he said. ‘€œThere are some nights I’ll play 30 minutes, there are some nights I’ll play 19. It’s pretty hard. That’s definitely a challenge. I haven’t done that since Portland. I’ve always played major minutes. Everything is an adjustment and I just have to believe in myself and know that my time will come.’€

Playing time isn’t the only change O’Neal faces. For the first time in years, he is not the centerpiece of his team. It is a change in mindset that Paul Pierce [8], Garnett, and Allen had to overcome in order to win with a trio of All-Stars.

‘€œIn Indiana it was more everything was set pretty much around me getting the ball in the low post,’€ O’Neal said. ‘€œWe set a lot of screens up top and I’€™m getting used to that, getting used to trying to get lifted on the side, and letting Chris do his thing. But I knew that. It’s not like I didn’t know coming into the situation when I got traded early July. I was thinking about it and I knew the sacrifices that I had to make as a player. But again, I thought I was kind of going to be able to get through the bumps and bruises in the preseason, being able to get a flow.’€

At this point, playing solid basketball is more important than running up the scoreboard.

‘€œEverybody always asks me what kind of stats do I want? And I always tell them that you can’t really put a number on it because you’d be cheating your team,’€ he said. ‘€œIf you say you want to go out and you want to score 20-plus a game, you don’t really know because the team might not need you to score 20-plus. When you have a guy in Chris who is really just kind of picked up where he left off this summer (at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), his determination and his focus is at a high level and you just want to do whatever you can do to help the team win. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because you want to play at the level people are used to seeing me play at but it’s just not quite there yet.’€

Perhaps the biggest source of frustration is actually a positive. For the first time in years, O’Neal’s knee is healed. The injury-prone big man wants to take advantage of his newfound health just as Allen did coming off of ankle surgery.

‘€œI’m great,’€ he said. ‘€œPhysically I’m great. And that’s probably the most frustrating part to me is that physically, I’m finally healthy but the flow just isn’t quite there yet.’€

12 years into his career, O’Neal is aware of what he has to do in order to succeed in Toronto where he sees great potential in his teammates. Even though he wanted to be adjusted ‘€œlike, yesterday,’€ he realizes he can be his own worst opponent.

‘€œIf I set the bar any lower, then I would never get to the level that I want,’€ he said. ‘€œThere are going to be some frustrating parts of early season but I watch a lot of tape. I sit up and watch tape, tape, tape, and try to figure it out. And sometimes my wife will say just go to sleep, put it in God’s hands and let him work it out. And it’s gotten to the point where I even couldn’t shoot. I’ve always been a good shooter and I’m just kind of throwing it in there, trying to guide it in. I didn’t quite think it was going to be this tough mentally, but it has.’€

Perhaps the Celtics success last season was deceiving. Maybe Garnett and Allen made winning a title with a new team look too easy. Maybe their championship was a tease to all those veterans yearning for their first ring. O’Neal isn’t fooled though. Frustrated, yes, but he understands what it will take to repeat the same achievements as the Celtics.

‘€œI’m up for the challenge,’€ O’Neal affirmed. ‘€œI’m up for the challenge.’€