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O’Neal never a good fit

Ex-Celtics baffled by role on offense

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 18, 2012
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LAS VEGAS — Hoping his body does not betray him yet again, Jermaine O’Neal spins to the right on a post move and releases his picturesque but methodical jumper. The ball swishes and those in attendance, including Lakers coach Mike Brown and general manager Mitch Kupchak, watch with keen interest.

The Lakers are considering taking a chance on O’Neal with a minimum contract, needing just a handful of minutes per game to spell Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. O’Neal, 33, said he wants to return to the NBA following arthroscopic surgery on his left wrist performed by Celtics team physician Brian McKeon and therapeutic procedures on both knees in Germany.

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez underwent the same knee procedure and both said it has added years to their careers. O’Neal hopes it adds at least one more year after a frustrating two-year tenure with the Celtics that ended with a broken wrist and mounting frustration.

Limited to just 49 games over two seasons, O’Neal said he enjoyed playing with the Big Three and playing before the Boston fans but was perplexed by his role in the offense, or lack thereof.

Coach Doc Rivers told O’Neal before signing his two-year contract for the midlevel exception that his role would be primarily defense, rebounding, and blocking shots. The Celtics, Rivers said, had enough scorers and O’Neal was added for defense. The six-time All-Star never became comfortable with that limitation.

“I had a fantastic time in Boston, with the city, the fans were phenomenal, the organization was phenomenal, I just don’t know if the playing situation was right to be quite honest,” he said after his workout Tuesday at Impact Basketball Academy. “The hardest thing for me was to not be able to do some of the things I have been quite comfortable doing all my life. I accepted the challenge. I accepted the role. [I didn’t want] 10 shots a game, but it was hard to be told not to worry about [scoring].”

After averaging at least 10.6 shots per game — and a career-high 19.4 in 2004-05 — for 12 consecutive seasons, O’Neal attempted 4.5 in 2010-11 and 4.8 last season.

“When I was asked about [offense], I tried to be as professional about it as possible but it’s hard,” he said. “You put any player in that position and ask them how that’s going to pan out for them; it’s hard mentally because you’re fighting against yourself every single day. And it’s not like you’re getting the reps, even in practice, because they’re going to stay away from that in practice because they don’t want you to start leaning towards that in games. It was really rough. The things that kept me going was the guys on that team, [team president of basketball operations] Danny Ainge and just the passion of that city. No one wants it to end the way it ended, but it did. I was never really healthy mentally.

“It took everything in my mind, body and soul to be professional about it. When that’s said to you in front of a team, it bothers you.”

The Celtics were 95-53 in O’Neal’s two seasons in Boston and 24-25 in games he played.

When contacted, Rivers said: “I’m disappointed that he didn’t enjoy his Celtics experience. Hopefully he can find somewhere where they’ll let him be involved in the offense.”

O’Neal carved a niche defensively with the Celtics by taking charges and grabbing rebounds but his first season was cut short by left knee surgery. And a hard fall taking a charge from Dallas’s Dominique Jones caused a wrist injury that ended his final year.

“I don’t have regrets for that because I had a great time,” he said. “I had a great time with the guys that were out there, it helped me get from day to day. And Danny Ainge, I can’t speak enough about his position as president of the team.

“Listen, I don’t want to confuse anybody doing this interview. I’m not saying by any means I can go for 18, 20 a night. But I know I’m still good enough to go for 20 on any given night, if given the opportunity. I wasn’t given the opportunity to post up at all. Not even in practice.”

.   .   .

According to an NBA source, Celtics center Greg Stiemsma has not received an offer sheet from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Stiemsma is a restricted free agent and the Celtics can match any offer but the team is over the salary cap, meaning it would have limitations in matching any offer above the biannual exception that begins at $1.95 million per season.

The Timberwolves have a $46 million offer sheet to Portland’s Nicolas Batum that the Trail Blazers are expected to match. If that occurs, the Timberwolves will have the cap space likely to make Stiemsma an offer the Celtics could not match.

The Celtics have had talks with representatives of free agent swingman Mickael Pietrus but have made no offer. With O.J. Mayo and Grant Hill committed to new teams, the market may open up for Pietrus, who is coming off right knee surgery.

A team source said the Celtics continue to work on a sign-and-trade deal for Jason Terry, although it remains unlikely. The Celtics are trying to free up the midlevel exception to pursue free agent guard Courtney Lee.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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