Jermaine O'Neal surprises in first game back

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Jermaine O'Neal surprises in first game back

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

SAN ANTONIO The grueling workouts, six days a week. The countless hours spent conditioning, trying to get his confidence up and game back on track while dropping a few pounds along the way.

This has been the journey taken by Jermaine O'Neal since he underwent left knee surgery on Feb. 5.

He's healthy now for the first time as a member of the Boston Celtics.

And while he still has some rust to shake off, the 6-foot-11 center made the kind of return that the C's desperately needed to knock off San Antonio, 107-97.

O'Neal, who hadn't played since Jan. 10, had five points in just over 11 minutes of action against the Spurs.

"I couldn't pick a better place than come and challenge what I've been through the last few months, than against a good team like San Antonio," O'Neal said.

Prior to the game, Doc Rivers made it clear that he had no idea how much he would get from O'Neal, or how long he would be able to use him.

Rivers liked what he saw from O'Neal offensively, but he was even more impressed with his defense.

The turning point in Boston's win on Thursday came in the third quarter.

O'Neal entered the game with 4:45 to play in the third, and the Celtics down 67-65.

By the time the quarter ended, the Celtics had a seven-point lead with him on the floor.

"I was happy to see him defensively moving, very well," Rivers said.

So were his teammates.

And while there are some who are concerned about whether there's enough time for Jermaine O'Neal to get up to speed, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo doesn't believe that's an issue.

"I think he is up to speed," said Rondo, who had 22 points and 14 assists for his team-leading 28th double-double of the season. "I say he's got to get his conditioning. Being out so long, the one thing you don't take for granted, especially when you get out there on the court, you're banging bodies, and you're on pick and roll, so if he can get his conditioning back he'll be fine."

O'Neal was pleased for the most part with his play against the Spurs.

But it's just a start.

O'Neal knows he has plenty of room to improve, and plans to do so.

"I look at what I did today," he said. "I have to be better tomorrow."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

BOSTON -- Prior to this year, the Celtics hadn't been to the Eastern Conference finals since 2012. That trip served as a curtain call of sorts for the last great C's dynasty.
 
But this one, which ended with Cleveland's emphatic 135-102 Game 5 victory Thursday at TD Garden, is very different.
 
Rather than closing another chapter in the Celtics' longstanding legacy of greatness, it could serve as the beginning of a new narrative in the franchise's steady growth.
 
"For us to be in the Eastern Conference finals after the first year of this team really being together, adding additions like Al Horford and Gerald Green . . . I can go down the list of guys that we needed to learn to play with, and for us to talk about where we wanted to be and actually make it, it's a big-time accomplishment," said Avery Bradley.
 
Boston has been among the younger teams in the NBA, with the 31-year-old Green being the oldest player on the roster.
 
But what the Celtics lacked in experience, they made up for with great effort.
 
"The great thing about this is the experience," Bradley said. "We were able to go to the Eastern Conference finals, learned a lot about being in this position, and I feel like it's going to help us for next year."
 
But as we all know, the Celtics will look to strengthen themsevles this offseason, which means there's a very good chance they'll have a different look when they gather again in the fall.
 
How different is anyone's guess.
 
"It's difficult every year whenever you don't have guys back," said coach Brad Stevens. "I think you share a bond (over the course of a season)."
 
Stevens and this group have been together for eight months. Eight months of struggles, successes, frustrating defeats and euphoric victories that brought them to the conference finals, which is where their season came to an end.
 
But as disappointed as the players and coaches are inow, there's definite excitement about this franchise in the very near future.
 
Boston has the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, with all indications -- for now -- pointing to Washington's Markelle Fultz as their choice.
 
And their top first-round pick from a year ago, Jaylen Brown, seemed to steadily improve as the season progressed. It was one of the few times in his life where minutes weren't just handed to him, which he admits was a learning experience unlike anything he had ever had, yet he adjusted and played better as the year went along.

"I've had ups, I've had downs, I've had opportunities, I've had mistakes," said Brown. "So I've been learning and growing and improving all year and I'm going to continue growing and improving and prove people wrong, prove doubters wrong."
 
Having the season end the way it did has indeed left a bad taste in the mouths of many Celtics.
 
"I can use it as fuel," Brown said, adding: "I want to get back to the same place I'm at now."
 
Bradley, who was on the 2012 team that lost to the Miami Heat in the conference finals, knows the Celtics are going to do whatever they feel is necessary to give them the best chance at competing for a title.
 
"It's out of our control as players," Bradley said. "We had a great year together. If guys are here, if guys aren't, we all wish the best for each other.

"But I do feel this is a special group. We all gave our heart every single night, played as hard as we could. I respect all my teammates, and I really appreciated playing with all the guys I had a chance to play with this year; a special group."