Jermaine O'Neal won't win any scoring titles this season, nor is he likely to lead the league in field-goal percentage (he's currently shooting 43.8 percent from the field for those that are curious), but that's fine, since his true value to the Boston Celtics this season will materialize on the other end of the floor.
Defense and rebounding will be Jermaine O'Neal's calling cards, which is especially important considering his role off the bench. Hampered by injuries, Boston's bench as been in flux all season long, and some defensive stability could do wonders for the Second Five. O'Neal's no stranger to the injury bug, as a hamstring issue derailed his training camp and preseason, before lingering soreness in his left knee kept him out of the lineup for 19 straight games.
When he returned from his 19-game absence on Christmas Day against the Orlando Magic, he suffered through the typical post-injury speed bumps, most likely due to a lack of rhythm, and that carried over into his second game back against the Indiana Pacers as well.
Since those two games, however, O'Neal's production has increased and remained fairly consistent. The numbers aren't overwhelming by any means: 6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over the course of his last five games. But it's been enough to earn the appreciation of Doc Rivers, who's been complimenting O'Neal throughout the last handful of games, and the compliments continued after last night's win over the Spurs.
"I thought Jermaine O'Neal, honestly, was just absolutely huge for us," Rivers said. "We left him out there, he defended Tim (Duncan) one-on-one for the most part, he got blocks, he gave us defensive energy. He was absolutely sensational."
As Jay King noted, sensational might be a bit of a stretch, but solid, or steady at least, certainly isn't. Those numbers from his last five games blow away those from the first two games he played following his knee troubles: 1 point, 2 rebounds, 0 blocks.
It's a small sample size, sure, but hopefully the last five games are signs that he's no longer suffering from the rust of his lengthy absence, and that he's continuing to develop into the reliable, and, perhaps more importantly, consistent defensive player the Celtics are hoping they have in him. Speaking with WEEI's The Dennis and Callahan Morning Show this morning, Doc elaborated on O'Neal's value since he's returned.
"Well he's doing exactly what we need him to do since he's been back. Before he went out he was struggling and part of that was health. But since he's been back, defensively, he's been absolutely wonderful. He had a stretch last night to me where he protected the basket, he got rebounds - that's what we want him to do. The offensive part, I think, is what frustrates people, and I could care less about his offense. It's going to get better as he plays more. He's going to roll better and find his different spots. But, honestly, he's on our team for one reason - we saw what he could do defensively, and that's all we care about."
Assuming O'Neal can avoid significant injury for the remainder of the season (difficult to assume, for sure), he should be awarded the playing time necessary to develop into the stable defensive player the Celtics need anchoring the second unit. In addition to being a presence on the defensive glass and blocking the occasional shot, O'Neal should improve in other key areas on defense as well: Making the correct rotations, guarding the pick-and-roll effectively, providing excellent help defense for his teammates on the floor, taking charges, and contesting, bothering, and altering the shots of opponents, if not blocking them.
All of these actions are arguably more important than O'Neal routinely putting the ball in the bucket for Boston. A superb offensive game from O'Neal would be, as they say, gravy. Defense and rebounds are where it's at. Speaking after last night's win over the Spurs, Paul Pierce acknowledged he's seen O'Neal's improvements.
"He's taking some time. You know he's starting to get his legs up under him," said Pierce. "This is like his fourth or fifth game back, so the good thing about (O'Neal)...You see him getting better each and every game. You can tell he's getting in better shape. He's getting in a better rhythm, he's understand what we're doing out there, and I think as we go along he's going to play more and more. He was huge tonight. He really changed the game there on the inside, clogging up the middle, blocking shots, and even as a threat to take some charges. He's a great defensive presence to have coming off the bench."
Hopefully, with the season not even halfway completed, the best is yet to come.