By Jessica Camerato
BOSTON -- For those who viewed the final games of the Boston Celtics' regular season as meaningless, Jermaine ONeal begs to differ.
Last Mondays contest against the Washington Wizards was more than an opportunity for Doc Rivers to rest four of his five starters. It turned out to be the boost Jermaine ONeal needed heading into Game One against the New York Knicks.
I think the best thing for me was being able to play those 37 minutes against the Wizards, he said of the game, in which he posted a 15-point, 13-rebound double-double. It gave me a great feeling of what Im comfortable with doing. Ten, 12 minutes a game, its hard to do that. But that game I was able to get to places and really test the knee.
On Sunday ONeal was able to do all of the above against the Knicks, scoring 12 points (66 FG), grabbing four rebounds, and blocking four shots in less than 23 minutes.
Following the game, Rivers credited ONeal for the win.
Ive got to say, Jermaine ONeal tonight was we won the game because of Jermaine ONeal, he said. Thats it. Forget his offense. His defense, his presence, his shot-blocking, his rebounding, his toughness and he did it in both halves. He was absolutely wonderful.
ONeals breakthrough performance came at an ideal time for the Celtics with the return of Shaquille ONeal in question. He gave the team the inside presence they had been missing since trading Kendrick Perkins in February and playing without Shaq.
At the end of the day, this is who we are, Rivers said of the center position. This is who we have. And were fine. Were ready.
The Celtics are confident having ONeal in the middle. They were impressed by his performances late in the season and expected him to make an impact in the playoffs.
I can see over the last few games the way Jermaine played a lot of extended minutes and really played well, said Paul Pierce. We saw that his health was really getting a lot better, he was getting his legs under him. Right on time.
Even though he missed a lot of games, he was big out there tonight for us with his shot blocking, he knocked down a couple of shots outside the lane. Just his presence is going to be big for us in the middle with Shaq being out. Im happy the way hes really progressed the last couple of weeks and hes carried it into the playoffs.
O'Neal's productivity in Game One was a complete turnaround from last season's first round series against the Celtics as a member of the Miami Heat. He shot 9-for-44 (20.5 FG) over five games, which he called a horrific shooting experience.
Looking to win it all this year, ONeal dedicated himself to the Celtics system. He studied game film leading up to the playoffs, making sure he got to the places on the court where the team needed him the most.
This team is built a lot differently than I was quite used to in my 15-year span, he said. You have to stay in a certain zone because if you step outside of that zone you affect the other guys. Trying to find that comfort zone of where those shots are going to be is something that I really have focused on the last three or four days.
This postseason is about moving on - moving on from injuries, moving on from poor performances in the past. All of the obstacles from the regular season were left behind once the playoffs began.
Its been a rough year, no question, ONeal said. This is probably been the hardest year of my career just mentally. Its just been a grind. My teammates, my brothers, have really helped me get through this. This city has helped me get through this. I just continue to work. Its just one game. Youve got to focus on some of the things you did good and try to get better the next game, thats my thought process.