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O’Neal’s OK with new role

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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Injuries aside, the hardest thing for Jermaine O’Neal to adjust to this season has probably been the job description asked of him by Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

Clog the paint. Block shots. Take charges. Help on pick-and-rolls. Roll to the basket.

Switching from star duties to clean-up duties was even harder when O’Neal started the season in a shooting slump, since he wouldn’t be able to simply shoot his way out of it. Not with so many other offensive options sharing the floor.

If O’Neal was going to be effective, he’d have to do it by going down that checklist. But when knee issues sidelined him for six weeks, it seemed as if O’Neal would have a way to go to live up to the mid-level exception deal the Celtics signed him to last summer.

Since his return to the lineup on Christmas Day in Orlando, Fla., though, he’s embraced all the mop-and-bucket assignments.

“It comes through time,’’ O’Neal said. “I’m learning on the go, and I think you guys know it, and they’re trying to put me in a position to be successful.’’

Even though O’Neal only practiced three times before returning to the lineup, Rivers has had no reservations leaving him on the floor, despite not being sure what he was going to get.

O’Neal eased back in with 10 minutes against the Magic and 12 minutes against Indiana, but he’s averaged 20.1 minutes in the seven games he’s played since returning, maxing out with 33 against the Hornets.

“I thought we’d get this out of him, but I didn’t see it happening this quick,’’ Rivers said. “I’m shocked by that, actually. Watching him move, right before we activated him, and seeing him play now, I think he may have been holding out on us. He’s playing great.

“Since the second half of the Indiana game, he’s been absolutely off the charts for us,’’ Rivers said. “It’s huge for us what he’s doing defensively. He’s another guy I think he’s finally decided [to buy in]. First of all he’s healthier. Secondly, he understands his role. We’re not going to him much [on offense].’’

Any shots that come his way are a bonus. Last year in Miami, he was taking 10.6 shots a night. This season, he’s down to 4.6.

“If you roll we’ll throw it to you, other than that, just keep setting picks,’’ Rivers said. “That’s tough for a guy like JO that’s been a feature player all his life and now he’s buying in.’’

Buying in mostly means not deluding himself into believing that he’ll be putting up superstar numbers.

“That’s the job handed to me,’’ O’Neal said. “I come in, rebound, block shots, help on the pick-and-roll, clog up the lane. We know who our key guys are.’’

At the same time, O’Neal’s been a key piece in the frontcourt with Kevin Garnett (calf) and Semih Erden (upper respiratory infection) both out. When they needed stops down the stretch against the Spurs Wednesday night, Rivers threw O’Neal at Tim Duncan without hesitation.

“He’s a great defensive presence to have coming off the bench,’’ said Paul Pierce. “He’s taken some time. He’s starting to get his legs up under him. The good thing about JO, you can see he’s getting better each game.

“You can tell he’s getting into better shape, he’s getting into better rhythm, he’s understanding what we’re doing out there and I think as we go along he’s going to play more and more.’’

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

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