By A.Sherrod Blakely
WASHINGTON When the Boston Celtics signed Jermaine O'Neal this summer, the plan was for him to be the team's starting center.
Things haven't quite worked out the way he or the Celtics would have wanted.
But for the first time since he's been part of the Green team, O'Neal delivered a starter-like performance against the Washington Wizards on Monday night.
Despite a strong showing, his play was not enough as the Celtics lost 95-94, in overtime.
O'Neal tallied his first double-double with the Celtics, scoring 15 points to go with 13 rebounds. He also had five blocked shots.
"He defended the basket about as well as you can defend it," said coach Doc Rivers.
More important, he played a season-high 37 minutes.
"I knew I would play extended minutes, but I didn't know how many," O'Neal said. "It's definitely minutes that were welcomed."
More than anything else, his health has held him back from logging more minutes for the Celtics.
A series of nagging injuries forced the C's to limit his playing time at the start of the season.
When rest didn't do the trick, O'Neal eventually opted to have surgery on his left knee on February 4, which sidelined him for a couple months.
Unsure of how the knee would respond upon his return, the Celtics have been cautious in their approach to his minutes played.
Prior to Monday night, O'Neal had played no more than 18 minutes since returning to the lineup on March 31 against San Antonio.
"It's all about getting a rhythm," O'Neal said. "I felt like tonight I was given an opportunity to stay out there longer; get a feel for the game and get back to doing some of the things that I'm quite comfortable doing."
Because he has been sidelined for so long, and essentially was a forgotten man with the Miami Heat last season, it's not that surprising that some forget that he is a six-time All-star who at one point was on the short list of elite big men in the NBA.
That O'Neal is not with the Celtics now, and chances are pretty good that he'll never get back to being that dominant a player.
But as he showed on Monday, he still has enough to offer the Celtics a solid presence defensively as well as a player they can turn to from time to time, to be a scorer.
O'Neal said he has had conversations with the coaching staff about getting more touches offensively when he's on the floor with the second unit.
"I think I can still help this team offensively, when the starting five is out, on the bench resting," O'Neal said. "It's not about that. It's about playing good basketball."