Celtics  coach Doc Rivers  has called Jermaine O’Neal  the MVP of training camp, but once the season began O’Neal struggled to make an impact. On Friday night against Detroit, however, everyone saw what Rivers noticed during the shortened preseason. O’Neal made himself a presence both on offense and defense, putting together his best performance as a Celtic with 19 points, the most he’s score in a Boston uniform, and seven rebounds.
“He was huge [tonight],” said guard, Ray Allen . “He showed his length, his presence, [and] he rotated over to make guys miss around the basket. Then he made his shots. He played a great game for us.”
O’Neal was active from the opening tip. In the first quarter he had four field goal attempts. O’Neal had been averaging four attempts a game this season. By halftime his aggressive play earned him four trips to the foul line. He had accumulated just three free throw attempts all season. In the third quarter O’Neal helped put the game out of reach, scoring seven points (on 3-for-3 shooting), with four rebounds and two blocked shots.
O’Neal also stayed out of foul trouble which has plagued him in the young season. This enabled the 15-year veteran to get into the ebb and flow of the game. “I’ve always been a rhythm player,” O’Neal said. “Looking at the first couple of games, I was in-and-out so fast.”
Allen felt it was important for O’Neal to see some continuity in terms of playing time, especially early in the season. “You almost need to get tired and fight through it,” Allen said. “[O’Neal] had an opportunity to fight through it and get comfortable out there. He seemed like he had his legs underneath him.”
O’Neal had been averaging 4.3 fouls per game, which he said made him tentative on the court. And although he did pick up five fouls against the Pistons, O’Neal was able to play 28 minutes as opposed to the 20 he had averaged throughout the first three games.
Even with his season starting poorly, O’Neal said he never lost confidence in his ability to bounce back. “The way the season is built, you have to stay positive,” O’Neal said. “You’re going to get an opportunity to try and comeback in another night or two nights.”
The 33-year-old veteran said he felt this was his best offensive performance as a Celtic, but doesn’t feel that this is his primary role. Instead O’Neal listed grabbing rebounds, protecting the rim, and setting screens as the contributions he is being asked to provide.
“Scoring is going to come and go,” he said. “Obviously I don’t want to be judged off how many points I score. That’s not my role on this team. People have asked me why I’ve accepted other roles, but that’s what you do on championship teams. You accept your role, you own it.”
O’Neal may not be the perennial All-Star player he once was, but he played like one on Friday.