His face scrunched up some. His head might have turned to the side a little. He was puzzled, the way you are when you sit through what feels like the longest red light in the world just to get the shortest green light.
That was the extent of Jermaine O’Neal’s preseason debut Sunday against the Raptors. Celtics coach Doc Rivers had envisioned running O'Neal longer, but trainer Ed Lacerte said it’d be wise to sit him down so he didn’t do any unnecessary damage to the hamstring that had kept him out of the Celtics' first two preseason games.
O’Neal wanted to play more, but he had to remind himself that he has 82 games to play (not including the playoffs) and that a preseason matchup with the Raptors wasn’t one of them. He’ll start tonight when the Celtics play the 76ers for the second time in a week, and since Shaquille O’Neal (hip) will be among the starters that see some time off, minutes won’t be an issue.
“Of course, coming off missing a week and missing two games, you want to play more, but I think the biggest thing here – and I have to remind myself – is that when I signed here that’s the sacrifice that I have to make,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to be games where you might not play as many minutes as you want. And you’ve got to not let your competitive nature be a hindrance to the team. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a long 82-game season. Things happen. And just keep my mind on one goal.”
O’Neal tweaked his hamstring on the next-to-last day of training camp two weeks ago and sat out the following week.
“It’s still not 100 percent, but it’s pretty good,” he said. “My cardio is a little bit better than I thought it would be the other night. But it wasn’t really a test at seven minutes. But overall I’m looking forward to playing and trying to build something as far as going into the regular season.”
Rivers talked a little while longer with the starters as the team got off the bus before a shoot-around this morning. Most of them will sit out, Rivers said, even though he wouldn’t say who. His goal for O’Neal is to gradually build up his minutes to prepare him for the season opener against the Miami Heat, which is exactly two weeks away.
“We’re just going to keep adding minutes to him, and he’ll be ready by the first game,” Rivers said.
In his short stint on the floor, O’Neal’s weak-side shot-blocking and help defense were on full display (he swatted three shots). When O’Neal was in his prime in Indiana, the Pacers were a top five defensive team three straight seasons and his experience there, he said, helps him with the defensive-minded Celtics.
“I can cover a lot of ground fairly fast on the back end of the defense,” O’Neal said. “As big guys, if you’re a good defender, you can kind of see the play develop. So, you guard your man and guard other areas, too. So I’ve always been very good at that, especially coming off the ball and blocking shots, coming weak-side blocking shots. So that aspect has been fairly easy for me.”
O’Neal didn’t take a shot in his debut, and he said he wants to find a comfort level offensively. But Rivers said O’Neal’s offense was the least of his concerns.
“We didn’t bring Jermaine in here to be a great offensive player,” Rivers said. “I mean he’s going to get what he gets. We brought him in here to be a great defensive player and I think that’s what he’s going to be. That’s why we went out and got him. He’s always been a great weak-side shot-blocker and a weak-side help defender. That’s one of the stronger points to our defense, so we thought it would be a natural fit.”