Jermaine O'Neal had encountered hard times before at the Palace at Auburn Hills. This was the same building where six years earlier, the 26-year-old Indiana Pacer had fanned the flames of a horrific brawl between players and fans that tarnished his reputation and the image of the game. They still boo O'Neal in Detroit to this day.
But O'Neal walked into the building on Tuesday night six years older, six years wiser, and determined to turn in a strong performance in his first career start as a Boston Celtic.
Taking over the center position from Shaquille O'Neal, who took the night off and stayed home to rest his bruised right knee, the other O'Neal had a long-awaited chance to prove himself. He'd had a rough start to his stint in Celtic green. He'd been a non-factor in the preseason. He was underwhelming against the Heat, he fouled out in 12 minutes in Cleveland, and he took a DNP on Friday night against the Knicks to rest his various minor injuries.
Tuesday was his chance to emerge from an early-season funk, letting the Celtics and their fans know he was still worth the $12 million contract he'd signed this summer. He made the most of it.
O'Neal finished with 12 points for the Celtics on an efficient 5-of-8 shooting clip, also chipping in two rebounds and two blocks to the Celtics' winning effort, 109-86 over the winless Pistons. His playing time was somewhat limited, but with his precious 21 minutes on the floor, he established his identity as a Celtic. He was an unselfish cog in the Celtics' offensive machine, and an integral part of Doc Rivers' active, team-oriented defensive approach.
"We keep telling him to be a defensive player, and you'll be amazed at how many points you score," Rivers said. "Because our guys are unselfish. If you run and set picks, you're going to be wide open, and you're going to get wide-open shots. And that's the first thing he said: 'My goodness. With these guys on the floor, if I set picks, they're going to find me.' That's what they did."
O'Neal was a six-time All-Star back in Indiana, a guy that the Pacers depended on every single night for 20 points and 10 boards, no questions asked. To the old O'Neal, coming off the bench and making only a modest contribution was a foreign concept.
But Tuesday was a big step for O'Neal, who's slowly but surely learning to play a small role on a big-time contender. He did the little things for the Celtics in his first start — he set picks and screens to help his teammates create, he moved quickly in the C's defensive rotations, and he gave energy in brief spurts when he was on the floor. He quietly went doing about the job that was asked of him.
Rivers had a talk with his players on Friday morning about their roles on this year's Celtics. O'Neal knows his — he's not going to put up gaudy scoring numbers, but he's going to be the glue that holds the C's together on both ends of the floor.
Six years ago at the Palace at Auburn Hills, Jermaine O'Neal came out swinging, and he hit a rowdy Pistons fan in the jaw. On Tuesday night, he came out composed and confident, ready to establish himself as a productive Celtic going forward. What a difference six years can make.