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O’Neal at new starting point in his career

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 3, 2010

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Considering the characters and malcontents on the 1996-97 Portland Trail Blazers, the team he broke in with as a 17-year-old, it’s a wonder that Jermaine O’Neal is still here, sitting at the gym at Detroit Country Day High School, reflecting on his 15-year career.

The plethora of questionable influences in that locker room — Isaiah Rider, a young Rasheed Wallace, Kenny Anderson, Dontonio Wingfield, Rumeal Robinson — easily could have stunted O’Neal’s potential.

O’Neal played just 211 games in his four seasons with Portland, as coaches P.J. Carlesimo and Mike Dunleavy made excuse after excuse as to why the talented but green 7-footer wasn’t playing.

In the 10 seasons that followed his welcomed trade to Indiana — one that changed the course of his career — O’Neal started 628 of the 652 games he played in, including all 70 with Miami last season.

Last night against the Pistons, O’Neal made his first start as a Celtic, replacing Shaquille O’Neal, who stayed at home with a bone bruise in his right knee. He played 21 minutes in the Celtics’ 109-86 victory, with a season-high 12 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

The opportunity to start was something O’Neal spent the past couple of days savoring, as he recalled those days on the bench in Portland and realized that at 32, it is something that no longer can be taken for granted.

O’Neal seemed to finally stop pressing in his desire to impress his new teammates.

“He’s definitely sensing the simplicity of the game that we have,’’ guard Ray Allen said. “If he puts himself in the right position, we’re going to find him. We’re going to get him his shots and he doesn’t have to press and he doesn’t have to take tough shots. You set screens and you’re wide open. Being out there, he’s going to fall into his comfort zone and he’s going to start hitting that stride.’’

O’Neal was the league’s third-highest paid player last season at $23.01 million; he averaged 13.6 points per game for the Heat, but only 4.2 in the five-game playoff loss to the Celtics.

His free agency piqued interest around the league because O’Neal was one of the more skilled big men on the market, but he wasn’t going to make anywhere near the salary he earned in the final year of his career-defining contract. He accepted a mid-level exception from the Celtics, and coach Doc Rivers spent training camp emphasizing to him that he is no longer a player who can dominate the post, and the Celtics don’t need a volume scorer, just a good defender.

“We keep telling him to be a defensive player and then be amazed at how many points you score,’’ Rivers said. “Our guys are unselfish. If you run and set picks, you’re going to be wide open. That’s the first thing he said was, ‘My goodness, with these guys on the floor, if I set a pick, they’re going to find me.’ ’’

Rivers’s words were a large dose of reality for O’Neal, who joined Kevin Garnett in the second generation of high school players going straight to the NBA. He understood the message.

“It’s back to the program,’’ O’Neal said. “We all had a vision and we all had our ideas of what this year would be like, and it’s been a long year for me so far, but it’s all about having fun out there again. Not overthinking things, just learning how to play with the first or second group. It’s all about doing things better and doing the things they need me to do.’’

The glory days for O’Neal were enjoyable. He was named to six consecutive All-Star Games, has been in the top 10 in rebounding for four of his 14 seasons before this one, and is seventh among active players in blocks. But he hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season since 2003-04, slowed by leg and knee injuries.

He had myriad ailments this preseason, including torn cartilage in his wrist, a strained hamstring, and a sore back in addition to the sore knee that sidelined him for Friday night’s win over New York. As with many high-school-to-pro standouts, his body is showing signs of decline in the early 30s.

O’Neal conceded recently that his confidence, once never an issue, was at an all-time low because he was unable to contribute. He finally had signed with a team geared for a title, yet injuries were preventing him being from a part of the equation. Against Cleveland, he picked up six fouls in 12 minutes, looking like a shell of himself.

“It feels good,’’ he said, when asked about finally making a contribution. “I was telling Kevin and [Rajon] Rondo and Paul [Pierce] and Ray during timeouts that I understand the areas that they like the ball and the open areas you have to get to. It’s all about being out there with those guys.’’

What O’Neal is here to do is the little things, setting screens, picking off the key rebounds, and perhaps making the pick-and-pop jumper to seal a key win. Nothing more. The Celtics don’t need a double-double. They don’t need O’Neal taking on Dwight Howard in the post.

“I have had some good runs and some bad runs and the only way you can get out of it is keep focusing,’’ he said. “The ultimate goal for me is to win a championship and find a way to do whatever I need to do to help this team win. That’s all I think about.

“The competitive part of me is going to try to phase in some times where I could take somebody. That’s just the nature of me being in the league so long, me being a dominant scorer.

“But now it’s about a different challenge, adjusting my role, adjusting my thought process to a team that’s already established with great players and a great system.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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