The regular season was long and painful — quite literally, physically painful — for Jermaine O'Neal. He's 15 years in now, with way too many miles wearing on his 32-year-old knees.
O'Neal's been through a lot this year. He arrived in Boston last summer on a two-year, $12 million contract, with a fan base just waiting to see him fail. He went down with a knee injury early in the season, and his repeated attempts at a comeback over the course of the season were all for naught.
It wasn't until Sunday night, in Game 1 of the Celtics' first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, that O'Neal proved once and for all that he was finally back. The Celtics' starting center gave them 12 points on perfect 6-of-6 shooting, four rebounds and four blocks in the playoff opener, paving the way for an 87-85 win.
"I've got to say — Jermaine O'Neal tonight, we won the game because of Jermaine O'Neal," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's it. Forget his offense — his defense, his presence, his shot-blocking, his rebounding, his toughness. And he did it in both halves. He was absolutely wonderful."
After all the scrutiny he's been through this season, Sunday night was O'Neal's chance to silence all doubters. He may have missed 58 of the Celtics' 82 games during the regular season, but he showed up in a big way for Game 1 of the playoffs. It meant a lot for him to finally break through.
"No matter what people say about you, whether it's good or bad, you've got to believe in yourself," O'Neal said. "I've put all my cures and words in God's hand and just continued to try and work. That's all you can do.
"It's been a tough year, no question. This is probably been the hardest year of my career, just mentally. It's been a grind. My teammates, my brothers have really helped me get through this. This city has helped me get through this. I just continue to work. It's just one game. You've got to focus on some of the things you did good and try to get better the next game, that's my thought process."
Much has been made these last two months about the gaping hole left by Kendrick Perkins' departure — without Perk's presence in the middle, the Celtics' losses have been chalked up to a lack of toughness, especially on the defensive end.
But now, ironically, Perkins' old role is being filled in the first round of the playoffs by O'Neal, the very same guy who clashed with Perk in the first round last season (and lost).
It's hard to be Perk. There's only one guy on the planet who can really, truly do it right. But O'Neal has stepped into the role of the defense-first tough guy in the middle, and he's performed admirably.
"Everybody has a job to do on this team," O'Neal said. "So many years I played against these guys in some tough games, and you see how they work. Everybody has a particular part to do in this machine. When I was brought over here, the conversation I had with Doc was more about the defensive end. Defense is something that I really focus on, and I know the guys really depend on me to do that. I look at it as trying to be a safety in the back, seeing the play developing. Altering a shot is as good as blocking a shot. Taking a charge is a great possession-changer. Those things happened well for me tonight.
"But do you be happy with just one good game, or do you continue to work? For me, I've got to continue to work."
Jermaine O'Neal had a great game on Sunday night, and he helped the Celtics to earn a big win. But his job is far from over. To reach his ultimate goal, he needs 15 more wins just like this one.