OFFSEASON

J. O'Neal is showing the Celtics what he can do

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J. O'Neal is showing the Celtics what he can do

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

CHICAGO Inside the mind of Boston Celtics big man Jermaine O'Neal, you'll find images of confetti streaming down from high atop the ceiling.

There are people, lots of them. The only thing that might be in greater numbers, are the tears shed by O'Neal.

They are tears of joy because all the long, painful hours he put in trying to recover from a potential season-ending knee injury, have paid off as he helped the Celtics bring home Banner 18.

It's all in his head -- for now.

But such imagery from O'Neal isn't all that surprising when you consider the six-time All-Star is also a movie producer with his most recent project, "Inheritance," slated to be released some time this year.

Nearing the end of his basketball career, O'Neal tells CSNNE.com that this is something that he will explore even more so when he's done playing.

For now, he's more focused on helping produce an NBA championship.

And the road map to making that happen includes several weeks spent here in Chicago with training guru Tim Grover as part of his recovery from left knee surgery in February.

"It was basically like training camp, with two-a-days for like three weeks," O'Neal told CSNNE.com, adding that Sunday was the only day he took off during those weeks.

There's little doubt that since O'Neal returned to the Celtics, he looks more like the guy that started 72 games last year for the Miami Heat, than the injury-riddled player Celtics fans had seen pre-left knee surgery.

His numbers in the four games since his return won't wow you -- 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game.

But there's no mistaking the 6-foot-11 center has made an impact in the one area the Celtics have been sorely lacking since trading away Kendrick Perkins on Feb. 24 -- interior defense.

Boston has ranked among the NBA's leaders in scoring defense all season, and is currently tops in the NBA by giving up just 90.8 points per game.

In the last four games -- three Celtics wins -- that number has dropped to 89.3 points per game. O'Neal has started the last two games, and the Celtics have given up just 86 points per game.

Now that can't all be attributed to the return of O'Neal. But having him back certainly hasn't hurt.

Coach Doc Rivers has been singing the praises of O'Neal ever since he returned to the lineup.

He was especially pleased with the way O'Neal played in Boston's 99-82 win over Philadelphia on Tuesday.

O'Neal had nine points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in just under 13 minutes.

"JO was terrific," Rivers said. "You know, he was aggressive, he was attacking, his defense was phenomenal. He's just been really good since he's been back; just buys in; we rarely go to him but he gets the ball in the right places because he's in the right spots. Defensively he's been very good."

Glen Davis is also among the Celtics glad to see O'Neal back on the floor.

"Having Jermaine makes it easier for all of us," Glen Davis told CSNNE.com. "He gives us another guy with size, around the basket, who can defend. It helps you at both ends of the floor, really."

Because of his added post presence, the Celtics can now get out in transition more following a defensive stop.

He's even had moments since returning when he has been able to out-run his defender up court and finish around the basket.

You hardly saw that at all before the injury. Part of that was because he wasn't healthy.

O'Neal admitted that there were also some trust issues as well.

"Because I wasn't healthy, the guys really didn't know what I could do to help offensively," he told CSNNE.com. "So when I came back, it was just a matter of showing them, showing Doc that I was back, that they could go to me if they wanted to and I would come through. We never really had a chance to establish that the way I would have wanted to, before the surgery."

O'Neal understands that he will never be a No. 1, 2 or even 3 option with this team.

That's okay.

Simply being part of a squad that's playing for something bigger than a paycheck, he says, is all he wants now.

And while this isn't his first time being part of a title contender, he admits it's more special because of the timing.

"Opportunities before," O'Neal said, "it was like how many opportunities am I going to have? That was the thought process. But now, there's no guarantee I'm going to play after next year," he said. "There's no guarantee we're going to play at all next year, as a league. You have to value these opportunities, because they are not a given."

When O'Neal entered the league straight from high school, he was part of a talented Portland team that included former Celtic Rasheed Wallace.

Although he didn't play much early on, those teams routinely made it deep into the playoffs.

And after he was traded to Indiana, the Pacers soon made deep playoff runs an expectation when former Celtic great Larry Bird was the head coach.

But those times are in the past now.

Those teams, that success, that Jermaine O'Neal . . . nothing but memories now.

He's looking to create some new ones now.

And they all center around one thing: Banner 18.

"I get emotional about it because I know that feeling; that feeling . . . you want that feeling," O'Neal said. "You want to go through that. God willing, I'll get that opportunity because I may not get that opportunity again if I don't get it this year."

And that, O'Neal said, would be the perfect storybook ending to his playing career a story that just might be at movie theater near you someday.

"You never know," said O'Neal, smiling. "You never know."

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

OFFSEASON

Durant leads U.S. to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

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Durant leads U.S. to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

LOS ANGELES - Just two games into the U.S. basketball team's pre-Olympic tour, coach Mike Krzyzewski already sees the start of something big.

Kevin Durant scored 19 points, Klay Thompson added 17 and the Americans rolled to a second straight blowout exhibition victory, 106-57 over China on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan scored 13 points in his hometown, and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and seven rebounds in the second stop on the five-city tour leading the Americans to Rio de Janeiro. The victory over an overmatched opponent was impressive, but Krzyzewski liked it more for the composed, cohesive manner in which the new teammates worked together.

"We should have won, but the way we won was excellent," Krzyzewski said. "We're really growing together as a group."

After opening their showcase tour by trouncing Argentina in Las Vegas on Friday night, the U.S. team posted another rout at a packed Staples Center. Krzyzewski is finding it difficult to disguise his early optimism, praising his team's work in their brief practice time together.

And while they're still learning their teammates' tendencies and solidifying player rotations, the U.S. team looked remarkably connected for long stretches against China, which has no current NBA players.

Durant noticed it, as did Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who kicked off the festivities by blocking a shot on China's first possession and throwing down an alley-oop dunk on the Americans' first possession.

"We've only been together a week, but it seems like we've been teammates for years," Jordan said.

Jordan scored 12 points and led a strong defensive effort with three blocks for the Americans, who held the Chinese to 30.9 percent shooting. Krzyzewski believes the American team will excel at defensive switching because of its abundance of versatile players.

"I think we're learning more about one another, and our defense was there pretty much the whole game," Krzyzewski said.

The Americans haven't lost a game since the 2006 world championships, winning 65 straight games. They're 47-1 in exhibitions since NBA stars took over the roster in 1992, going undefeated since 2004.

While LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard all declined the chance to play in Rio, the Americans who accepted the opportunity appear to be serious about winning without some of the nation's top stars.

"We're young, but we've got a bunch of seasoned pros," said Kyrie Irving, who had 10 points and four assists. "We've been on a lot of journeys, and we've crossed paths before, but now we're all coming together at the right time."

Anthony was the only holdover in the Americans' starting lineup from Las Vegas while Krzyzewski works on chemistry and coordination. He put Paul George in with the starters alongside Anthony, Jordan, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, whose family watched from courtside.

Both teams had early shooting struggles, but the Americans took charge with impressive speed late in the first quarter.

Durant, one of the two returning American gold medalists from London, heard boos from the LA crowd during pregame introductions. He quickly found his outside stroke with 14 points and four assists in the first half, and Cousins overpowered the Chinese down low for 12 first-half points on the way to a 55-29 halftime lead.

The Chinese team's most recognizable name to North Americans is Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks' choice with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent five seasons with four NBA teams before heading back to the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Yi led the Chinese with 18 points. Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 center drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round last month, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Exciting guard Zhao Jiwei scored 14 points.

The teams meet again Tuesday in Oakland, where Durant will play in front of his new home fans for the first time since defecting from Oklahoma City to the Golden State Warriors earlier this month.

They'll also meet Aug. 6 in the opening game of Olympic competition in Brazil.

OFFSEASON

After flurry of moves, Celtics still aren't done

After flurry of moves, Celtics still aren't done

You’re probably thinking the summer fireworks are finished after the Celtics brought back Tyler Zeller, added ex-Celtic Gerald Green, and signed rookies Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil. It’s true, these moves do lower the likelihood of a multifaceted trade, but it doesn’t totally extinguish the odds of something seismic happening.

The Celtics still retain their flexibility, since none of these deals have actually been finalized. Even after they are, they’d still have the pieces required to make a deal work for a superstar like Blake Griffin. It’s not hard to make a valid trade for one player, but it is difficult if it’s a multi-step process like a Russell Westbrook renegotiate-and-extend trade.

“This is not necessarily what the team will be,” a source told the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach. “There’s probably changes coming.”

Well, yeah. Changes have to come. The Celtics don’t really have a choice here.

Assuming Jaylen Brown is signed, they’ll have 18 players with at least partially guaranteed contracts. So at least three players will have to be exported before the season, since the NBA requires a maximum of 15 players on a roster.

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ current projected depth chart:

  STARTERS BENCH RESERVES ON THE BUBBLE
FRONT COURT Amir Johnson Kelly Olynyk Tyler Zeller  
Al Horford Jonas Jerebko Jordan Mickey Ben Bentil*
Jae Crowder Jaylen Brown* Gerald Green James Young
BACK COURT Avery Bradley Marcus Smart RJ Hunter John Holland*
Isaiah Thomas Terry Rozier Demetrius Jackson  

So, something has to happen. It’s just a matter of what. You can choose to believe the Celtics aren’t actually trying to make a blockbuster move. Or you can choose to believe the signals that have been firing off this month from the Celtics themselves indicating they’re “not done.”

It wouldn’t be difficult for the Celtics to get closer to 15 players by completing a blockbuster trade for a player like Griffin.
 
Perhaps some combination of veterans (Amir Johnson, Avery Bradley, and Jonas Jerebko) with youth (Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and James Young) and draft picks (2018 Nets pick) could bring in Griffin and Paul Pierce.

Saturday’s moves make sense regardless of any transactions to follow.

Zeller is a bargain at just $8 million as a steadying presence on both ends of the floor. But, if Johnson were dealt, he’d be able to slide right up the depth chart as the team’s backup center.

Green shot 37.2 percent on spot up threes, per SportVU, over the past three years, so he provides spacing as a scorer who can catch fire. Considering Brad Stevens’ track record of sapping every ounce of talent out of each of his players -- hello, Jordan Crawford! -- it’s possible the Celtics will be getting the Green who scored an efficient 15.8 points per game just two years ago in Phoenix, and not the subpar Green who struggled to stay on the court last year in Miami.

If one or two of Boston’s young wings were dealt, Green, on a mere veteran minimum contract, would have an even easier path to playing time as a spark off the bench.

It’s difficult to read into the signings of second-round picks Jackson and Bentil, but either way the should both spend the season developing with the Celtics’ D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

The Celtics haven’t made a move yet, but they also haven’t done anything to suggest they’re entirely done. These moves could be precursors to something significant, or not. But at the least they provide depth to an already impressive roster.

OFFSEASON

Report: Celtics agree to deals with Zeller and picks Jackson, Bentil

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Report: Celtics agree to deals with Zeller and picks Jackson, Bentil

On a busy Saturday for the Celtics, they have brought back center Tyler Zeller and agreed to deals with draft picks Demetrius Jackson and Ben Bentil, Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe reported.

Earlier Saturday, Sean Deveney of the Sporting News reported that the Celtics will sign guard Gerald Green. 

Himmelsbach reports that Zeller's is a $16 million, two-year deal with the second-year not guaranteed. Jackson, the point guard from Notre Dame who was the 45th overall selection in the draft, has a guaranteed deal and Bentil, the forward from Providence who was the 51st player drafted, has a partially guaranteed deal. 

Steve Bulpett of The Boston Herald reported that the second-year of Zeller's deal is a team option and that Green agreed to a one-year deal at the $1.4 million veteran mininum based on his nine years of NBA service.

The 7-foot Zeller averaged 6.1 points and 3.0 rebounds in 11.8 minutes a game last season. 

R.J. Hunter, James Young, Bentil and John Holland are in position to fight for the final roster spot, Himmelsbach reports, pending more deals, which the Celtics are reportedly working on. A source told Himmelsbach, that while there are probably changes coming, "There is no big deal right now." 

Bulpett reported that Celtics' talks with the Philadelphia 76ers involving a deal for Sixers' big man Jahlil Okafor have, according to sources, grown "stale" and that the moves Saturday put 2014 draft pick James Young's roster spot in jeopardy.

With Green, Zeller, and No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have has 15 guaranteed contracts and three partial or non-guaranteed deals.