When Jermaine O'Neal's final jump shot snapped through the net in the fourth quarter, the Celtics center didn't seem the least bit surprised. O'Neal considers himself a capable scorer, even if the evidence — eight total points in the Celtics' first three games — says otherwise at this point in his career.
O'Neal was finally able to contribute offensively as he would like to, scoring 19 points to lead all Celtics scorers in a 96-85 win over the Pistons on Friday. The emotion of Paul Pierce's return from a heel injury helped boost the Celtics to their first win of the season, but the play of their 33-year-old center provided benefits that were just as tangible as Pierce's 12 points and five assists.
"He was terrific," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of O'Neal. "[He] gave us a great lift, played with great energy. Made some shots, but the offensive part to me came from him doing his job, and I told him that. He really focused on setting picks, rebounding, all the little things."
As Rivers preached throughout training camp, O'Neal's most valuable contributions will come in areas other than scoring. O'Neal held up his end with seven rebounds and two blocked shots, and although he committed five fouls, he was able to avoid the early, careless fouls that force him to go to the bench and lose his offensive rhythm.
O'Neal's ability to stay out of foul trouble against the Pistons should not have been a total surprise. The Celtics guards have struggled to stop quick, slashing guards such as Toney Douglas, Dwyane Wade and Jarrett Jack.
That put the Celtics' big men in awkward situations on help defense, and for O'Neal that meant foul trouble.
The Pistons, who also entered Friday's game winless, don't utilize a backcourt scoring threat of that kind. Ben Gordon's most dangerous weapon is his step-back jump shot, and even Rodney Stuckey, who led the Pistons in scoring and assists last season, seldom charges into the lane with reckless abandon. Brandon Knight may be the type of guard who can give the Celtics trouble later in the season, but for now the rookie is still finding his way in the NBA.
Against the Celtics, Stuckey's discipline was probably his downfall. He went 1-for-11 and finished the game with three points in more than 27 minutes. He took only five shots on floaters or driving layups, whereas Jack made it pretty much all he did against the Celtics in New Orleans. Jack took 17 shots against the Celtics and 11 of them came from nine feet or closer, according to HoopData, and finished with 21 points.
Freed from having to worry about some 6-foot-2 blur flashing through the lane on Friday, O'Neal preserved his fouls and conserved his energy for the offensive end. O'Neal needed just nine shots and five free throws to get to his 19 points, making him not only effective but efficient.
Like any veteran, O'Neal chose his spots. His performance shouldn't be taken solely as a reflection of Detroit's putridness; to the contrary, it shows that in his 28th game as a Celtic, O'Neal recognizes the best ways to get his shots in the flow of Boston's offense.
Rivers mentioned how O'Neal benefited by setting screens for Allen, as opposed to point guard Rajon Rondo. Even though Rondo's jumper has been more consistent this season, opponents still don't fully respect it, so they sag off Rondo and keep O'Neal from getting the ball in prime positions on the pick-and-roll.
By setting screens for Allen, both on the ball and off, O'Neal forced his defender to make a choice between taking an extra step out on the best 3-point shooter in NBA history or giving his full attention to O'Neal. As a result, O'Neal was able to get some momentum going to the hoop or to establish better position on the block.
"It's amazing how you get rewarded, somehow," Rivers said. "J.O.'s no dummy. He kept setting picks on Ray, and when you set picks on Ray, everybody's running to Ray and he kept slipping [to the hoop]."
With John Wall and Nick Young leading the Wizards' frantic attack, O'Neal will probably be in for another challenging night Sunday in Washington, D.C. We could be right back to talking about O'Neal's struggles then, but for one night, the Celtics front line wasn't as old as it used to be.