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It’s clear to anyone who’s seen one of Shaquille O’Neal’s 37 games that if “The Big Shamrock” is healthy come playoff time, he’ll be a huge asset to the Celtics. The problem with that is will he actually be healthy? With Shaq’s health and playoff availability in question, the spotlight is going to have to shine on the other half of the “O’Neal brothers,” Jermaine O’Neal.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said last Tuesday after the Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers, “We have to have, I kept saying, one of the O’Neal brothers.”
O’Neal, like his “brother” Shaq, has had injury trouble all season, which has limited him to only 24 games. Since his most recent return from injury back on March 31 against the San Antonio Spurs, he has averaged just over 4 points per game and has played anywhere from 11 to 18 minutes in a game (those averages don’t include his 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 blocks over 36+ minutes in a loss to the Wizards Monday when four Celtics starters did not play). Offensively, the previous numbers don’t jump out of the boxscore at you, but since he’s been back, he’s been effective in other ways.
His defense, as noted by coach Doc Rivers, has been good and with Kendrick Perkins now in Oklahoma City, the Celtics need a defensive presence inside. O’Neal probably won’t be able to fully fill the void left by Perkins when he was shipped away, but steady minutes will suffice. Anything from taking charges and changing shots should be just what Boston needs on the interior.
In Sunday’s blowout loss to the Miami Heat, O’Neal showed that he can be a physical presence, to a degree. He gave a hard foul to LeBron James that earned him a flagrant one. After the foul, he and James shared some choice words and O’Neal stood his ground. This type of intensity and physicality is what this team needs and he will only help his case if he continues to play this way.
As the playoffs creep closer and closer, the importance of Jermaine O’Neal establishing himself as a tough defensive threat becomes increasingly important. If he expects to be a regular in Doc’s playoff rotation he’s going to have to do it on defense.
If Shaq is healthy, O’Neal would likely drop down to third on the depth chart behind Shaq and Nenad Krstic. Both Krstic and Shaq are more known for their offensive abilities and are more likely to get the minutes when the Celtics are in need of scoring, but if O’Neal molds himself into a good defensive bigman, he could become their hard-nosed defensive center.
O’Neal may not have panned out the way Celtics fans may have wanted when Danny Ainge signed him to a two-year deal at the mid-level exception, but it’s good he’s here. He’s been injured and he’s been nearly invisible on the scorecards when he’s played. There is no way of arguing that statistically he hasn’t lived up to the billing, but was signing him a mistake? No.
Unfortunately, his shortcomings have become more evident because of the Celtics being thin in the frontcourt, but he’s still going to be valuable. He’s going to have to be if the NBA’s most winningest franchise expects to raise an 18th championship banner to the rafters this year.