The C's will definitely need J.O.'s defensive presence in the playoffs.
He's playing in his 15th season, has scored over 12,000 points, grabbed over 6,500 rebounds, and blocked over 1,600 shots. But Jermaine O'Neal won't be satisfied if he retires not knowing what it's like to feel confetti streaming down from above.
Coming to Boston wasn't about the money, although it certainly was an enticing offer. It was about the chance to do something he's never been able to do. Something that Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce couldn't do alone either.
The season hasn't played out the way O'Neal, or anybody for that matter, hoped, as O'Neal has missed 56 games to date. But with four games under his belt since recovering from left knee surgery, and five more to go before the postseason, there appears to be enough time left. The Celtics have their starting center that, before the regular season began, many thought would be starting come the postseason.
"[Against the 76ers] I felt really good, especially in that third quarter," O'Neal said after the game, wiping the sweat from his forehead before he left. "I felt normal. Just getting in better shape. Just focusing on what the team needs me to do. Defensively I got to be able to anchor the D, contest shots, and rebound the basketball."
O'Neal played 12 minutes of solid basketball Tuesday night, scoring nine points and grabbing three rebounds, as he works to rebuild his stamina and get back into game-shape. For the Celtics, that can't come at a soon enough time. His defensive presence down low is exactly what the team has been lacking since both O'Neal's went down.
"J.O. was terrific," Doc Rivers said after the game. "You know, he was aggressive, he was attacking, his defense was phenomenal. I mean 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."
And on defense is where O'Neal will earn his eventual increased playing time. He knows this, and is doing the things he needs to do to be effective out there.
"Making sure I wave at shots because altering shots is just as good as a blocked shot," he said. "Covering the ground, covering the pick and roll, felt really good especially in the third quarter. Being able to make multiple moves, being able to show, getting back to the basket, trying to contest the shots. So those are the things I'm really concentrating on."
It's no surprise that O'Neal is buying into Doc's system. He came here to be a part of the bigger picture.
"It's whatever the team needs," O'Neal said. "I'm not at a position in my life, in my career anymore, where it's about numbers.
"It's about trying to finish a job that I was given an opportunity to do and that's help this team win a championship. Anything else after that really doesn't matter. I just want to make sure that I get to a level that is comfortable not just for myself but for the team too."
Getting to that level has been quite an uphill battle, one that O'Neal did everything in his power to avoid, but eventually had no choice but to go though with.
"The difference is in this league, the people who are in it for the wrong reason would have laid down," O'Neal said. "They would have laid down and say ‘OK I had knee surgery my year is over'. I fought it. I fought it before the surgery. I didn't want to do it. I was out there on one leg basically fighting the swelling because I'm prideful. I'm dedicated to the job that has been given to me. I've never been one to take the easy way out."
It's not the first time O'Neal has fought through injuries. He fought through countless injuries in Indiana, and played through last season's playoff's on the Heat (against the Celtics) with a terribly swollen left ankle.
In Chicago, O'Neal trained hard twice a day, testing his body's limits until he knew he was good to return to the team. Now that he's back, the Celtics are "hovering" close, as he put it, to make sure he doesn't overdo it.
"It was hard," he said of being away from the team for so long. "I kept in touch with the guys. You know, just talking to the team, they were asking where I was, what I was doing, how I was doing. And that means a lot, whether you guys know it or not when your brothers care enough about how you're doing and what's going on."
It's not just his teammates that have been there for O'Neal, it's the fans in Boston who have made this tough time on him a little easier to handle.
"It's been a long process, and anytime I've been to a grocery store, anytime I've been to a movie theatre, the city has made me feel really good. So in those dog days that I've had trying to get back, that's the reason why I continue to push because a lot of people have really made me feel right at home.
"It wasn't one of those situations where people see you in the streets and say what's happening and are very negative. So I feel good about playing for Boston, I feel good about the support I'm getting from my team and I'm going to do all that I can do to bring Banner 18 back to Boston."
For more than ten seasons, O'Neal has been on Eastern Conference teams competing against the Celtics. Who can forget that epic playoff series back in 2003 when the Celtics ended up defeating the Pacers in six games? Before Garnett and Allen came to down, that was perhaps the best season since the late 1980's. Jermaine O'Neal was the centerpiece of that Pacers team that season. Years later, he's playing for the then "enemy" and realizes how lucky that is.
"This is special man, I'm going to be honest," he said. "All these years of playing against the Celtics, I always walked in and looked at the banners and looked at the following that this city has had and you can feel the energy in the building. Now I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum where I'm a part of it, and I might not get this any more.
"All these years, I've accomplished a lot of things in my career but it doesn't really matter. This is what matters. The champagne, the confetti, the tears - that's what matters. I'm not about to let nothing - surgery, anything - take away at least the opportunity."
O'Neal was the biggest thing to happen to the Pacers since Reggie Miller. Miller retired from the NBA after 18 seasons with the Pacers in which he became known as one of the deadliest shooters in the league. One thing Miller will never have though is an NBA championship ring.
O'Neal and Miller talked over the offseason, and it was then that Miller told him that it was all about getting the opportunity to win a championship at this stage in O'Neal's career. He took that to heart when deciding upon where to sign next.
"I watch almost every championship game at different levels, whether it's baseball, football, college, or whatever. I watch the confetti. I watch the emotions. I watch the tears. Because it takes a lot."
It's taken a lot out of Jermaine O'Neal to get to where he is today. But he still has enough left in him to help the Celtics win a championship this season.
Recovering from in-season surgery is no easy task, but O'Neal has worked hard to do it. Now, he's given himself, and the Celtics, something only they have the power to make the most of.