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Christopher L. Gasper

Bigger impact means better days

Jermaine O’Neal’s highest-scoring game as a Celtic (19 points, to go with seven rebounds) drew kudos from Kevin Garnett. Jermaine O’Neal’s highest-scoring game as a Celtic (19 points, to go with seven rebounds) drew kudos from Kevin Garnett. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / December 31, 2011
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Technically, First Night is tonight, but you can’t blame the Celtics if they thought they rang in a new year last night.

The return of NBA basketball to Boston felt like a brand-new start, separate from those three deflating losses in New York, Miami, and New Orleans. It was the first night that the Celtics had their core, the first night Paul Pierce suited up, the first night center Jermaine O’Neal showed up, and the first night the Celtics won.

The Detroit Pistons were exactly what coach Doc Rivers ordered for the Celtics, who rolled disjointed Detroit, 96-85, at TD Garden, avoiding their first 0-4 start since 1969-70. Good luck to former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank; he has his work cut out for him in Motown.

Pierce, who in his return from a bruised right heel had 12 points and five assists in 23 minutes, wasn’t the only Celtic who made a triumphant comeback. Sure, O’Neal played in the Celtics’ first three games, but that’s being generous. O’Neal was a microcosm of the Celtics’ 0-3 start - he looked slow, aged, and past his prime.

Last night, O’Neal was a symbol of the Celtics’ renaissance, scoring a team-high 19 points and pulling down seven rebounds in what qualified as his best game in a Boston uniform.

“Jermaine was super tonight,’’ said Kevin Garnett. “He had a lot of energy to begin with. He was active. The things he was able to do for us tonight was tremendous on both ends.’’

His best sequence of the night came late in the third quarter. O’Neal blocked a baseline drive by Rodney Stuckey - one of his two blocks - and then on the other end converted a driving layup while being fouled. His 3-point play gave the Celtics their largest lead of 25 points. That excited a crowd that included Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. (Bobby V got a large ovation in the second quarter. No word on whether Valentine was critiquing Rajon Rondo’s shooting stroke or complaining that Pierce took too long at the free throw line.)

The Celtics turned the game into a laugher in the third quarter, shooting a scorching 71.4 percent to end the frame with a 22-point lead (86-64). At that point, O’Neal had poured in 17 points and pulled down all seven of his boards. He entered the game with just 8 points on the season.

O’Neal is not the linchpin of the Celtics. This team is still about Pierce, the ageless Ray Allen, Rondo’s continued evolution, and most crucially just how much Garnett has left in the tank after more than 44,000 minutes of NBA basketball.

But the 33-year-old O’Neal can be germane to the cause because he is the only thing resembling an experienced, bona fide center on the roster. Yes, Greg Stiemsma is a cult hero in incubation and the big fella had a great block of Jason Maxiell last night, but filling the void left by the trade of Kendrick Perkins last season falls to O’Neal until further notice.

Equally encouraging as O’Neal’s performance was his ability to put it in perspective. The six-time All-Star understands he’s a supporting player in Boston.

“I’m not going to let the offensive end dictate,’’ said O’Neal. “I know people always want to judge that part of me and how I help the team based off that. Fair or not, that’s just how people are. But defensively and rebounding are how I judge myself. That’s my role. I know I’ve heard people ask me, ‘Why would you accept that role?’ Because that’s what you do on a championship-caliber team. You accept your role and get into that position and you own that position. That’s what I want to do.’’

The NBA lockout was a blessing in disguise for O’Neal, who played in only 24 games last year because of a balky left knee that required arthroscopic surgery.

“Last year was a struggle. I was hurt, and half the time I was medicated to the point that I almost didn’t know I was hurt until I tried to get in the game,’’ said O’Neal. “When you’re physically not right then, you’re mentally not right. It was tough. All in all the lockout really helped a guy like myself. It gave me more opportunity to get stronger on some things that I need to work on.’’

Other than the debut of Pierce and the resurgence of O’Neal, another promising sign last night was that for the first time this season we saw vintage Celtics defense. The Celtics had allowed opponents to shoot 49.6 percent from the field in their first three games. Last night the Pistons were limited to 43 percent. Detroit hit 7 of its first 11 shots and then the Celtics clamped down; Detroit shot 27 for 68 (41 percent) the rest of the way.

As well as O’Neal played, the Celtics still lack the interior defensive presence they had during their championship years. That forwarding address is Oklahoma City. The Pistons’ Greg Monroe - that rarest of NBA creatures, a true center - had 22 points (on 9-of-12 shooting) and nine rebounds last night.

“It’s kind of a work in progress,’’ said O’Neal. “This team is very tough mentally. I know when you lose three in a row people begin questioning the team and what we’re doing and who is doing what. But we know that this process is a process and that at the end of the day we will be better, and we will be considered one of the best teams in the league. We know how to win ballgames.’’

Last night was the first night of the rest of the season for the Celtics.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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