The last time Jermaine O'Neal was seen on an NBA court was nearly six weeks ago — on Nov. 8 in Dallas, the Celtics' center asked out of a game at halftime with soreness in his left knee, and he's been missing in action since.
But finally a breakthrough came this weekend — the Celtics' $12 million free-agent signing was back on the practice floor with the team on Saturday afternoon, ready to work. He's hoping to be back to game shape soon.
"It felt good," O'Neal said of his first practice. "It felt good just to be back out there, more than anything. I didn't really expect anything — when you expect too much, you can kind of get disappointed. But I did all but two or three reps today, pretty much the entire practice."
O'Neal isn't 100 percent ready for game action just yet — coach Doc Rivers conceded Saturday that the big man "looked tired" in his first practice and said that he wouldn't even suit up Sunday against the Pacers, much less play. But he's getting a lot closer to a comeback.
"I just want one or two practices to see where I'm at, to gauge myself against some of the other guys," O'Neal said. "Today was one. I think we have another chance to get a practice in before Wednesday's game, so I'll just keep doing what I need to do."
O'Neal will watch Sunday's game against the Pacers from the TD Garden bench, in street clothes. After Sunday, the C's have just two games over the next eight days — they're off until Wednesday, when they'll take on the Philadelphia 76ers at home, and then they travel to Orlando for Saturday's Christmas Day showdown with the Magic.
O'Neal hopes to return at some point during this abbreviated week.
"That's my Christmas and New Year's wish — to be playing before both of them," he said. "I have a target date that I've told these guys, but I don't want to say it. I just want to go home and get some rest, and hope that everything I've done today will be good for tomorrow."
Judging by the calendar, O'Neal's target date is likely Wednesday. Over the next few days, we'll find out just how realistic that is.
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