Celtics starting center Jermaine O’Neal erased all of his demons Sunday night with a standout performance in game one of the opening round playoff series against the New York Knicks.
Said head coach Doc Rivers: “We won the game because of Jermaine O’Neal, that’s it. I mean, forget his offense. His defense, his presence, his rebounding, his toughness… he was absolutely wonderful.”
O’Neal was at times a dominant force for the Celtics seemingly coming alive in the second half providing the Celtics a spark they had so desperately needed after falling behind to the Knicks.
Let’s face it, we went into this series more concerned that the other O’Neal was not going to suit up in game one leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Celtics front court. Enter Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal looked fluid running the court contributing on both ends chipping in 12 points on 6-6 shooting, grabbing 4 rebounds and most notably blocking 4 shots. O’Neal was a force causing the Knicks to alter their shots as they approached the hoop.
Said Jermaine O’Neal: “Now is the first time all year that I’ve been able to play without any pain, any soreness, not been medicated to the point where it’s affecting how I feel out there, defensively, it’s something that I really focus on; I know the guys depend on me to do that. I look at it as trying to be a safety in the back, you see the play developing. … Those things happened for me tonight. But do you want to be happy with just one good game, or do you continue to work? For me, I have got to continue to work.”
O’Neal appears to have bought into the defense first approach so carefully preached by head coach Doc Rivers. O’Neal’s greatest contribution to the team is going to be what he can do on the defensive end. Any points he scores are a bonus as the blocks and rebounds are worth so much more to the Celtics at this point of the season.
The Celtics will and should look to exploit the soft middle of the New York Knicks as they lack the presence of a true center on their roster and could be in trouble if Jermaine O’Neal could continue this return to form in game two and beyond.