He's running the floor, jumping with spring. He's being knocked down, and he's making his jump shots. For the first time in years, Jermaine O'neal looks like a healthy NBA basketball player.
Trust me, I had my doubts. I got as excited as the next Boston Celtics fan when I heard about the signing last summer. I got a mouthful from my roommate about how Jermaine O'Neal was a broken down corpse of the player he was in Indiana.
I saw articles and naysayers on Bleacher Report commenting about the waste of money Boston just made by signing a player so injury ridden. My hopes weren't helped at all when O'Neal couldn't even make it through the preseason without sore knees. Then the time came when O'Neal decided to have surgery on his knee rather than playing out the season.
"Don't worry," he told us, "I'll be back before the playoffs." The doubters had won. Us Celtic fans had all but accepted that the signing was a bust and that even if we get to championship 18, Jermaine O'neal wouldn't be a part of the success.
Then came the Perkins trade. We traded a battling, defending big man for a youngster with a lot of promise, and an unproven European softie center. The posts and naysaying were back. No way Boston is winning now. No size. No interior defense. NOT TOUGH ENOUGH. We were relying on a soft newcomer, a Shaq who had missed over 20 games (now over 40), and Jermaine who was fresh out of surgery.
We dropped game after game. Every day a new link on NBA websites popped up saying "Jermaine closer to return."
When it came, it was for 13 minutes. A very slow 13 minutes, but I noticed something. O'Neal hit the floor hard, and three teammates ran to the rescue. Garnett extended his hand and O'Neal popped up like nothing had happened. He smiled, and played out the rest of his minutes.
The second game I noticed was the Miami blowout. LeBron sprinted to the rim, head down and barreling like usual. Most players dodge out of the way of the human freight train in LeBron, but O'Neal ducked his shoulder and took the hit, causing some steam between the two teams.
It showed me a little more hope, that maybe the interior toughness wasn't completely gone from Boston. Maybe, probably not, but maybe I was wrong.
Game 1 was the mind-changer. The Celtics didn't play to their potential or their talent. Ray Allen may have made the game-winning shot, but Jermaine O'Neal won the game for the Celtics.
It wasn't the 12 points he posted in his 20 minutes of play, it wasn't even that his hustle was there. It was the lockdown defense he was playing on every player he was around. It was his leaping like it was 2004. It was his four swats on anyone that threw it up around him. It was his toughness, and his heart.
It was his way of telling all of us that he wasn't a waste of money, and that all he needed was to be healthy, and he would give us the big man we wanted.
Games 2 through 4 were no disappointments either. Averaging only 22 minutes a game, O'Neal has put up superb interior defense, toughness, given us a few rebounds and a fantastic 2.5 blocks a game.
Kristic and Davis give him a great rest when he needs it, but he's proved to be more than effective throughout the first series. Although New York isn't the biggest team in the world, interior paint play didn't seem to get the best of Boston.
We'll see how the next series goes, but something tells me Jermaine O'Neal is going to be a major factor in the Celtics' superb defense.
Am I the only Boston fan that is starting to see Shaq's return as more of a added benefit rather than a necessity?
I think we're tough enough.