O'Neal's Defense Sparks Comeback in Game 1
Missing in Action Most of the Year, O'Neal Steps In and Steps Up vs. Knicks
BOSTON - Ray Allen will get the headlines for his game-winning 3-pointer that knocked off the Knicks 87-85 on Sunday night, but Jermaine O'Neal stepped out of the shadows and is perhaps the real hero of Game 1 after a surprising defensive performance.
Since the much-debated Kendrick Perkins trade in February, the Celtics' center situation has been in flux. The storyline going into Sunday night's game was that Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't be able to play.
Starting at center, Jermaine O'Neal made an impressive impact, especially in his 7:18 stint in the third quarter. With the C's trailing 51-39 at the half, O'Neal took the floor in the third and blocked multiple shots, changed a few more, came up with some huge rebounds and putbacks, and sparked a Celtics defense that held New York to just 13 points in the stanza.
"I've got to say, Jermaine O'Neal tonight was – we won the game because of Jermaine O'Neal," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "I mean he was -- 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."
O'Neal played just over 22 minutes, but that seven-minute stretch to start the third quarter saved the game and allowed for the comeback. In the first half, the Celtics offense was sputtering and their defense wasn't any better. The Knicks shot 54 percent from the field, and the C's struggled to get open looks over the first 24 minutes.
Things turned around when O'Neal became a huge presence in the paint. O'Neal finished Game 1 with 12 points, four rebounds (three offensive) and five fouls, but it was four blocked shots and several other intimidated/altered shots that really made the difference for the Celtics around the basket. In the third quarter alone, O'Neal had six points, two offensive rebounds and two blocked shots that changed the tide for the Celtics as the comeback from 12 points down began and the TD Garden crowd came alive.
O'Neal's second-half defense proved contagious. The C's limited Carmelo Anthony (15 points) to just 1-for-11 shooting and three points in the second half. Amar'e Stoudemire at times looked unstoppable (28 points, 11 rebounds and a few nasty dunks), but over the final few possessions of the contest, Kevin Garnett (15 points, 13 rebounds) and O'Neal combined to deny him the basketball and stymie the Knicks' attack.
O'Neal's teammates are pleased to see him becoming a contributor, and his hard work in rehabbing himself for the postseason certainly hasn't gone unnoticed.
"I could see over the last few games, he played a lot of extended minutes. He's getting his legs under him right on time," Celtics Captain Pierce said, after making the pass that led to Allen's game-winnner. "He was big for us, his shot-blocking and just his presence is gonna be big for us. I'm happy for how he's progressed over the last couple of weeks."
O'Neal credited his teammates for keeping in touch with him while he worked to get back into the lineup, and supporting him while he struggled with a knee injury and eventual surgery that restricted him to playing in just 24 games this season. But for all of the skeptics who said O'Neal wouldn't be a factor and Perkins would be sorely missed, O'Neal took some measure of vindication in his own performance in Game 1.
"No matter what people say, you gotta believe in yourself," O'Neal said, who indicated that he's finally playing pain-free basketball for the first time in a Celtics uniform. "This has 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. 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," O'Neal said.
O'Neal understood the skepticism from outsiders who questioned the Celtics' depth at center given the injury battles both O'Neals have faced. He said he doesn't listen to talk radio (he does tweet, though) but acknowledged that the last vivid images of him that Celtics fans really have are from last year's postseason series against the Celtics while he was a hobbled and wildly ineffective member of the Miami Heat.
But in Game 1, O'Neal got a standing ovation for his third quarter effort, and he impressed his head coach as well. Rivers played his gut instinct and went back to JO in the fourth quarter's last six minutes, where he's typically called Glen Davis' number.
"That was not how I planned that. JO was playing so well," Rivers said. "We needed stops. Because of our stops we could get offense. That was all [my] gut, but the way JO was playing, it wasn't that hard."
As O'Neal noted in his postgame presser, it was only one game. But his contributions helped stake the Celtics to a 1-0 lead in the series against the Knicks, and if he can maintain that type of play throughout the postseason, the much-maligned center position will no longer be a question mark for this team.