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O’Neal germane to outcome

Center was a real difference-maker

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / April 18, 2011

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He wasn’t the O’Neal everyone cared about leading up to last night’s first-round opener against the Knicks at TD Garden.

The Celtic with 12 points, four blocks, and a game-tying basket with 73 seconds left in regulation made so much of a difference that coach Doc Rivers said “we won the game’’ because of him.

Jermaine O’Neal may have been one of the last players expected to make such a difference against New York, but he had a lot to do with Boston’s 87-85 victory.

After all, O’Neal was one of the worst players in the playoffs last season while playing for the Heat. This season, a knee injury required arthroscopic surgery in February and kept the center out for more than 30 games. By the time O’Neal felt strong enough to play again, he was begging Rivers to let him play extra minutes against teams like the Wizards at the end of the regular season.

With the uncertainty surrounding center Shaquille O’Neal and his return, the Celtics have another O’Neal who may be back at just the right time. For the first time this season, Jermaine O’Neal said he is playing without any pain.

“We won the game because of Jermaine O’Neal,’’ Rivers said. “That’s it. 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.’’

The veteran was perfect from the field (6 for 6) and drained a layup with 1:13 to go that tied the score at 82-82. He did it all while playing with five fouls in the final 3:56 of the game. He challenged shots in the paint, took a couple of charges, and had those four blocked shots. Rivers left O’Neal in the game down the stretch instead of going with Glen Davis.

“JO was playing so well, and we needed stops,’’ Rivers said. “I felt that because of our stops we could get offense. So that was more [going with his gut], but with JO playing, it wasn’t that hard of a decision for us.’’

The Celtics may not have many answers when it comes to the interior game, but O’Neal made a case to be given the responsibility. Shaquille O’Neal’s return remains questionable as he is hampered by a combination of injuries to his right leg that caused him to miss the final six games of the regular season. There appears to be one O’Neal for the Celtics who is ready to go.

“He played a lot of extended minutes and really played well,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “We saw that his health was getting a lot better and he was getting his legs up under him.

“He was big out there for us [last night] with his shot-blocking and he knocked down a couple of shots outside of the lane. Just his presence is going to be big for us in the middle with Shaq being out.

“He’s really progressed over the last couple of weeks and he’s carrying that through the playoffs.’’

When Rivers rested his starters in the final games of the regular season, Jermaine O’Neal didn’t want to be included in that group. He missed 36 games because of his knee and needed all the minutes he could get to develop a rhythm. Against the Wizards, O’Neal played 37 minutes and had a season-high 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 blocks to secure his first double-double as a member of the Celtics.

O’Neal said that experience helped him as he prepared for the postseason.

He didn’t have fond memories of the playoffs last season, as he faced the Celtics in the first round and averaged 4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in 23.4 minutes a game. But O’Neal said that did not affect his thoughts about what he could do for the Celtics last night.

“It’s been a rough year and it’s probably the hardest year of my career mentally because it’s been a grind,’’ O’Neal said. “My teammates really helped me with this. It’s just one game, and you’ve got to focus on the things you did good and try to be better the next game. That’s my thought process.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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