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O’Neal puts faith in Celtics

He believes Boston has a nice ring to it

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 15, 2010

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WALTHAM — The last time the world saw Jermaine O’Neal, the Celtics had just finished picking him apart. Boston had defeated the Miami Heat in five games in the first round of the playoffs, and O’Neal was in the visiting locker room at TD Garden.

His 14 years in the NBA had all left him short of the Finals, and he’d gone into recent seasons wondering if making the playoffs at all was a tangible goal. After that loss, O’Neal was asked if he would ever consider playing for a team like the Celtics. The truth was that it didn’t take long for the thought to cross his mind.

He became a free agent for the first time this summer. He had suitors — from the Heat, a team he knew was trying to lure LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play with Dwyane Wade, to the Mavericks and Nuggets. But while considering his options, the 6-foot-11-inch O’Neal thought about how long he had been in the league without getting a chance to play for a title, and asked himself, “What gives me the best opportuni ty to win next year?’’

After they bounced the Heat, O’Neal watched the Celtics reach the Finals, ultimately falling to the Lakers. When the time came to make a choice, he decided to join the team that had beaten him.

“I know what this city represents,’’ O’Neal said yesterday after officially signing a two-year deal with the Celtics. “I know what this organization represents. I know what the guys on that court represent. They compete at a very high level on the floor. They don’t really care who gets the credit for scoring or rebounding or whatever it may be. They just play together and play to win. Obviously, those guys have a ring already, but they want another one. I don’t have a ring, and I want one.’’

The Celtics were — and still are — in the market for a big man after losing center Kendrick Perkins to torn knee ligaments in Game 6 of the Finals. In O’Neal, they’ve added a veteran, for the midlevel exception ($5.765 million), with the ability to score and rebound.

“He’s versatile,’’ said Celtics president Danny Ainge. “He can catch and finish. He can score on the post left hand, right hand. He’s a good weak-side shot blocker and he’s been a decent rebounder as well.’’

With size being so hard to find in free agency, O’Neal had teams from which to choose.

“Jermaine had a lot of options,’’ Ainge said. “There were a lot of teams. There’s not a great deal of big men out there in the free agent market, especially for the midlevel. So we had to make a tough sell.’’

O’Neal was courted by the usual suspects — Ainge, coach Doc Rivers, team captain Paul Pierce, and team politician Ray Allen — but he said the player that made the biggest sell was Rajon Rondo, who called O’Neal Tuesday night and invited him out to dinner while he got settled in a new city. Rondo made it clear what O’Neal’s role would be and what the Celtics’ expectations would be for next season.

“He just told me how I would fit with the team,’’ O’Neal said. “What they expected on a day-to-day basis from their team, and their focus. All I heard was, ‘championship run, championship run.’ That’s all that matters right now.’’

Still, in this past postseason, O’Neal was almost nonexistent. After averaging 13.6 points and 6.9 rebounds during the regular season, he scored all of 21 points in the series against the Celtics. He revealed that he played the series with a swollen left ankle after being kicked in a game against New York in the last week of the season, making it nearly impossible for him to contribute.

“To me, when you suit up and you go out there, you’re telling your team and your followers that you’re ready to play,’’ O’Neal said. “Whatever excuses you have should be kept in the locker room, so I chose not to talk about it because it didn’t really matter. I still felt like I could go out there and help the team, and unfortunately I couldn’t do it.’’

The 2004 brawl at The Palace at Auburn Hills was arguably a turning point in O’Neal’s career. He was suspended for 15 games, and when he returned the Pacers were in disarray. Two seasons later, he tore the meniscus in his left knee, but played on it anyway, finally undergoing surgery in 2007.

“I felt like the team was struggling so bad and the city needed something positive and I continued to play on my meniscus,’’ O’Neal said. “I played on my meniscus for two years and it gradually got worse and I ended up having surgery and tried to get back quickly and it didn’t work out very well.’’

The training staffs of the Raptors and Heat, along with noted Chicago trainer Tim Grover, helped him come up with a program that got him healthy enough to play 70 games this past season, the most he had played since 2003-04.

“We checked him out thoroughly, [did] physicals and got the medical records from his past,’’ Ainge said. “So we’re not concerned by that any more than we’re concerned by any other player.’’

O’Neal said he felt like he could play another five years, “but hopefully I can win it next year and then win it the year after and walk away from it.’’

At this stage of his career, he said, signing with the Celtics was the best chance for him to get the one thing he’s missing.

“I’ve been on the Olympic team,’’ he said. “I’ve had Nike campaigns. I’ve had All-Star Games, All-NBAs. And I don’t have an NBA Finals appearance, which is the most important thing to me. That’s what I really value the most right now.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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