Jermaine O’Neal Restores Toughness, Defensive Prowess to C’s Front Line in the Postseason


April 21, 2011

Jermaine O'Neal Restores Toughness, Defensive Prowess to C's Front Line in the Postseason The Celtics are up 2-0 on the Knicks and headed down to New York. For some of you, advancing from here to round two is a slam dunk; for others, it's a contested 25-footer.

The C's have beaten the Knicks in back-to-back games, but both were iffy performances for 48 minutes and both went down to the wire. They won one on a clutch 3-pointer from Ray Allen and the other on a classic Kevin Garnett sequence of a post-up and a steal against Jared Jeffries.

Are you satisfied? Or does this leave you worried with the Heat, Bulls, Lakers and others potentially lying in wait?

For the majority of you, the latter is closer to the truth. Let's take a look at some of your inquiries about the C's and their playoff run.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week. Please do keep them coming as the postseason continues.

1. Are the reports of Shaquille O'Neal being done for the season exaggerated?
–Celticsbanner, via Twitter

Yes. Absolutely.

At this juncture, we have no way of knowing what Shaq's future holds. His calf is hurt, but it's not a serious injury and it doesn't require surgery. It's simply a matter of how much pain he feels.

No one can decide that besides Shaq himself. So don't listen to any "reports" telling you Shaq will or won't be back, down the road. Right now, that's nothing more than speculation. He may be back to help the Celtics at some point during this playoff run, or he may not.

For the record, Doc Rivers did say Wednesday that there's a chance Shaq comes on the New York trip this weekend and tries to play. But take that with a grain of salt.

2. Jermaine O'Neal is going to be vital in this series and beyond. He is out to prove himself, and I have extreme confidence in his abilities. I'm tired of hearing that the Celtics have lost toughness with Kendrick Perkins gone. What do you think?

It's only a two-game sample, Phil, but so far the playoffs have proven you right. Kendrick Perkins may be gone, but Jermaine O'Neal brings that same level of toughness, and, when healthy, as he is right now, he makes the Celtics a lot better defensively.

People have talked about that "toughness" element a lot over the last couple of months, and the truth is you're talking about something very intangible and hard to quantify. But here's something very tangible: he's blocked six shots in two games, and he's been a big reason the Celtics have outscored the Knicks in the paint both nights.

Obviously, the Shaq saga has garnered a lot of headlines, but Jermaine O'Neal has proven that the C's can tread water. His presence has allowed them to focus on defense out of the center position, and that formula has certainly worked for him in the past.

3. Do you think Rajon Rondo's recent struggles will continue into the playoffs, or will he get back on track?

Rondo will be fine. All of his injuries — both the literal physical kind and the emotional — are minor, and he knows the importance of ramping it up to give his best effort in the postseason.

The C's point guard had quite a slump in March. His assists went down sharply, he wasn't a threat to score and he didn't play with his usual level of energy on either end of the floor. Part of that was his banged-up body — he's had a strained hamstring, a sprained ankle, a jammed finger and chronically sore feet — but there was also probably a little bit of the "Perk factor" involved, too.

None of the above should be an issue anymore. Everyone's a little bit injured this time of year, and Rondo knows how to fight through it. He's averaged 20 points, eight rebounds, 6.5 assists and a steal through two playoff games, so it looks like he's doing just fine.

4. How do you feel about the bench, and how vital will it be for them to spell the core four?

Not great, Phil, to be honest. The Celtics have leaned heavily on their starters to win these first two games, and they're not getting much of anything from their reserves.

Delonte West has been a little passive. He looks like he's been thinking too much, not playing. Jeff Green is hit-or-miss — sometimes he brings it, and other times he looks confused, like he doesn't know when to find his own shot and when to defer. Nenad Krstic has basically been a no-show.

Perhaps the bench isn't as vital this season — the Celtics are very self-aware about all of this, and they know they'll need their four best players to carry a heavy load this spring. But it sure would be nice to see the C's get a little more from the bench guys. So far they're only getting solid minutes from one?

5. Glen Davis has been a huge part of the Celtics this season and last, and not just because he leads the NBA in charges. Is he the biggest game-changer coming off the Celtics' bench?

Yep. He's the one.

Davis is the Celtics' biggest bench game-changer, although, truth be told, he hasn't given them much in the way of scoring lately. He's doing it in other ways — by giving them versatile defense on both bigger and smaller guys, crashing the boards and making energy plays. The C's need all of that from him.

Davis gives the Celtics a lot of qualities they're looking for in a crunch-time center. Jermaine O'Neal might not have the stamina, and Shaq might not have the defense or the free-throw shooting, but Big Baby gives them everything they need to close out ballgames. He's a good fit.

He might still have one explosive scoring night in him, too. Remember Game 4 of the Finals last year, when he went off for 18 points to beat the Lakers?

6. We've all seen the decline in the Celtics' toughness and post presence since the Perk trade, and the negative effects on team chemistry. Do you think it would make sense to start Jeff Green at power forward and make Kevin Garnett a sixth man?

I'm not so sure about that, Jay. Jeff Green is good for a lot of things, but if it's toughness you're after, you're better off sticking with a front line of KG and Jermaine O'Neal.

The two starting bigs work great together because they're both team defenders, they both offer size and strength and they both help on the glass. When both have been healthy, they've worked great together. It'd be hard to break those two up without a really good reason.

Green is an interesting X-factor off the Celtics' bench, but he's a difficult fit in the starting five in Boston. He's a little too small to be a power forward. Green's best role is the one he has now — he's a guy who can bring game-changing athleticism to the C's second unit.

7. I'm trying to find the records of the 16 playoff teams after the trade deadline. How did the Celtics stack up against the top teams in the league?

The Celtics were 41-14 when the trade deadline passed; they finished the season 56-26. That means they went 15-12 after the series of trades that jettisoned Perkins, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody.

That places them fourth among the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, and 11th among the 16. The best teams in the league post-deadline have been Chicago at 24-3 and Oklahoma City (uh oh, here come the Perkins comments?) at 19-7.

Basically, the Celtics were the same team post-Perkins trade as they were post-deadline last year — solid in places, but a little inconsistent, and not good enough to earn the No. 1 playoff seed in the East.

8. All things considered, who do you think is a tougher matchup for the Celtics — Chicago or Miami?

I'll go with Chicago, Glenn. And I'm not necessarily doing so because of the star players headlining the matchups.

The Celtics know how to handle stars. They've proven it in the past — they've beaten every star player you can name in a playoff series. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Joe Johnson and the list goes on. Their teamwork and their defensive schemes are enough to get the job done against any one brilliant individual.

But what's really scary to the Celtics is a mirror match — a team that boasts great team defense like their own. That's what Chicago has that might give the Celtics fits. You saw it in action the final time these two teams met in the regular season — Tom Thibodeau's schemes thwarted the C's all night long. Forget about LeBron and Wade — it's seven games of that that could really do them in.

9. Can the Celtics realistically get anyone decent in free agency this summer to help them make one last run before the end of the Big Three era?

It's tough. The Celtics are built around their four core guys, and none of them are going anywhere anytime soon. They're not going to land any stars because the stars won't get many minutes in Boston behind a quartet of All-Stars.

Realistically, I think their best bet is to go after one more big man to shore up their depth there, what with the aging O'Neals. Here are a few names of bigs who could be available in free agency: Jason Collins, Kris Humphries, Kurt Thomas, Kwame Brown, Jared Jeffries, Chuck Hayes and their old friend Leon Powe. Any of those sound appealing?

Or if the C's want to think bigger, they can try talking Kenyon Martin into taking the mid-level exception in Boston. It's a possibility.

More than likely, though, the Celtics' main focus this summer will be retaining the guys they already have. Glen Davis and Jeff Green could be important pieces of their future plans, and it's up to Danny Ainge to keep them around in 2012 and beyond.

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