O'Neal has a lot to prove

O'Neal has a lot to prove
December 17, 2011, 10:51 pm
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TORONTO Jermaine O'Neal has received plenty of accolades during his 15 seasons in the NBA.

If Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had his way, he would add one more to the list.

"If we had an MVP trophy - maybe we should have one - for camp, I think he would win it," Rivers said. "He's been phenomenal throughout camp. He's been absolutely wonderful."

The Celtics will need O'Neal to have a much better season than the one he had last year, a season in which O'Neal's health either kept him sidelined or limited him when he did play. A rigorous offseason conditioning program has O'Neal, 33, in the kind of shape you wouldn't expect for a player nearing the end of his career. That work is critical to both his play and the success of the Celtics this season, with O'Neal being the team's only true center.

During the summer, O'Neal spent some time in Las Vegas at the Impact Basketball Competitive Series. It was an opportunity for some of the league's up-and-coming talent to get a chance to workout and play against NBA-caliber competition during the lockout.

On most nights, O'Neal was the oldest player there.

"You don't see players my age out here, do you? When this lockout ends, I plan to be in the best shape I can be, so that I can hit the ground running and help my teammates the best way I can," he told CSNNE.com. "I want to be able to do more, a lot more, than I did last year. I'm a better player, a much better player, than I showed last year."

While it's too soon to tell if that's true, there's no question that O'Neal's health isn't nearly as problematic as it was a year ago when he appeared in a career-low 24 games. Rivers said he's also shown a better understanding of what his role will be with the team.

"Number one, he has really bought in defensively," Rivers said. "He knows where to be all the time."

He's also a better communicator with his teammates defensively, something Rivers admits was a problem at times with the team's centers before and after the C's traded away Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City.

"Now he's become a talker," Rivers said. "That's one of the things, Kevin (Garnett) and Perk and Baby (Glen Davis) and all those guys had, Jermaine was new to it. We didn't have that a lot last year."

Rivers added, "Jermaine was learning it, and you heard Shaq talk before so no one could understand what the hell he was saying, the mumble. So it's good that Jermaine got it, is getting it."

Jermaine O'Neal understood that the Celtics needed him to provide a defensive presence at all times.

But he is a five-time NBA all-star, who came to the Celtics last season averaging at least 13 points per game in each of the previous 10 years he has been in the NBA.

However, O'Neal averaged just 5.4 points while playing 18 minutes a game - the least productive O'Neal has been statistically since the 1999-2000 season in Portland when he averaged 3.9 points in 12.3 minutes per game.

"I can still score a little," he quipped. "But it's really a matter of my teammates getting more comfortable with me, and me with this system. I think you'll see me more involved offensively this year."

Rivers agrees.

"Offensively he just knows where to be now," Rivers said.

In the team's intra-squad scrimmage, O'Neal showed the ability to run the floor and finish in transition by establishing himself in the post quickly. His face-the-basket fade-away jumper was working as well. And around the glass, he was able to keep a number of possessions alive not to mention he was the only Celtics player in the scrimmage to draw an offensive foul.

It was the kind of performance O'Neal hopes to deliver often for the Celtics - or any title contender - this season.

O'Neal was part of a potential three-team trade between Boston, Dallas and New Orleans that would have sent David West to Boston (he signed with the Indiana Pacers instead) and would have sent O'Neal to the Mavericks.

The potential trade, O'Neal said, was never something he was overly worried about. His focus was about proving his worth to the C's in training camp.

"It's just been fun," O'Neal said. "It's been calm. I was a little nervous last year, coming into a situation where I knew this city is looking to win a championship. You want to battle for your spot, and end up getting hurt. It was tough, but this year was more about being calm. Even when the trade came up. I wanted to figure out where I was going, if I was going somewhere."

The C's seem content on keeping O'Neal around for now.

Based on his MVP-like play thus far in camp, that's understandable.