Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said that center Jermaine O'Neal underwent an MRI on Wednesday on his ailing left knee and, while he hadn't seen the results yet, he indicated that in-season surgery is a likely possibility as Boston looks to cure what's nagged at O'Neal his first three months with the team.
Jermaine O'Neal. I can vaguely remember a time when that name brought me pleasure.
He had just signed with the Boston Celtics, and I thought to myself, "The C's just added a 14-point, 7-rebound a game center! And he plays defense! And Perk will return by the All-Star break! And no more Sheed!" I conveniently forgot about the Celtics-Heat playoff series, when O'Neal shot one fer twenty million (or something like that) and generally looked more washed up than a shored seashell. "He's a former All-Star," I told myself. "And he's still got something left in the tank. 14 and 7!"
Fast forward to January 13th, aka today. My thoughts about O'Neal -- how do I put this nicely? -- have changed. I find it difficult to blame O'Neal for some of his shortcomings, as he's battled injuries ever since landing in Boston. The latest injury-related setback? Swelling that has bothered O'Neal's knee for the past two or three weeks, and leaves him in pain every time he takes the court. So maybe O'Neal's not to blame for his underwhelming start. Maybe none of this is his fault, but the fault of a misbehaving body no longer built for the NBA season's daily grind. To the Celtics, who's at fault doesn't matter. What matters is only O'Neal's dwindling production, and the fact that his paper-mache body could fall apart at any time.
A question started nagging me about a month into the JO Experiment, and has become even more pressing in lieu of the recent injury news. My question echoes a sentiment Zach Lowe recently tweeted:
Will the Celtics get anything out of Jermaine O'Neal? And I don't mean in the near future, either. I mean ever. Will the Celtics ever get anything productive from Jermaine O'Neal? Or will his whole stint in Boston become entirely stained by injuries, the injuries that have limited O'Neal to two double-digit scoring games in his first three months as a Celtic?
At this point, they're fair questions to ask. The Celtics have already shut down O'Neal once, for a month and a half. He finally returned to the court, and instantly his knee swelled up. Doc Rivers is "concerned," and O'Neal admits the knee problems aren't likely to go away. "To be honest with you guys, there's going to be times when the knee is not going to react well," O'Neal told ESPN Boston less than a week ago. "I know that, the team knows that. I'm not trying to hide that from anybody."
As far back as November, O'Neal told ESPN Boston, "This is the most swelling I've had since I tore my meniscus three or four years ago." He continued, "I know the length of time it took to get back from [the meniscus] -- it took a while."
Perhaps the swelling has improved since November. Perhaps not. As O'Neal said in December, "This is who I am right now. This is what God has given me right now. You deal with it and move forward. With the brace, it’s going to help, but I can’t guarantee that the knee is not going to flare up."
The knee has flared up, and the Celtics don't seem to know what to do about it. When asked whether the team would shut down O'Neal for any extended period of time, Doc Rivers told the Boston Globe, "We’ve done that and we thought we were good, and it happened again." He added, "I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I just know this has to be frustrating."
O'Neal's play has clearly been hindered by injuries throughout the season. When he's not sitting out games, he's battling through pain on the court or attempting to gain chemistry and rhythm lost by so much missed time. The Celtics ask O'Neal to play a different role than he's ever filled in his career, and the struggles are evident. With unimpeded time on the court, perhaps O'Neal's adjustment would prove less difficult. But with limited minutes and a lack of mobility, O'Neal's adjustment continues at a snail's pace.
In O'Neal's absence last night, Semih Erden received the backup center minutes. The Celtics are lucky they're deep enough to withstand so many early-season injuries, and Erden, when pressed into action, filled in nicely. The seven-footer had no idea he would play, and couldn't possibly have been prepared for 33 minutes of action. As Doc Rivers told ESPN Boston, "I think [Erden] thought his lungs were going to burst."
Yet Erden, who established career highs with 10 points and nine rebounds, provided more productive minutes than O'Neal has offered all season. He rebounded, drew fouls, contested shots, and even roared after one of two highlight-worthy dunks (the other highlight-worthy dunk was even better, and my accompanying scream likely woke up my entire neighborhood). More importantly, Erden provided much-needed energy while the Celtics slumbered through the first half. He changed the game's complexion.
Maybe it's not fair, to compare Erden's minutes against the lowly Sacramento Kings to anything O'Neal has done this season. Then again, maybe it's not fair to compare a raw Turkish rookie making the NBA minimum to a six-time NBA All-Star making $6 million per season. We expected a lot from Jermaine O'Neal, and, to this point, his signing hasn't paid many (any?) dividends.
Maybe Jermaine himself revealed how we should approach the rest of his time in Boston. He was talking about how he dealt with his return from injury, all the way back in December, but he might as well have been offering advice for us to deal with his next return.
"I didn’t expect anything," he said, "because when you expect too much, you'll just be disappointed."