BOSTON -- In terms of time on the court, Jermaine O'Neal's 12 minutes, 32 seconds of action in the Celtics' 99-82 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday won't necessarily count as progress, seeing as it marked his second lowest minute total in the four games he's played in since returning on March 31 after a 36-game absence in the aftermath of left knee surgery.
But in an encouraging twist, they were arguably the most productive 12½ minutes that O'Neal has put in this entire season. Despite his limited floor time, he made his presence felt, as he registered nine points on 4-of-6 shooting to go along with three rebounds and a blocked shot. His overall impact defensively cannot really be quantified, as he helped to anchor Boston's defense and forced Philadelphia scorers to alter their shots on numerous possessions.
"[O'Neal] was terrific," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You know, he was being aggressive, he was attacking, his defense was phenomenal. I mean, he's just been really good since he's been back. [He] just buys in. We rarely go to him, but he gets the ball in the right places because he's in the right spots. Defensively, he's been very good."
O'Neal's most productive period on the defensive end came in the third quarter, where he put together an impressive two-minute stretch of protecting the basket.
With just under 11 minutes to play in the frame, Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes attacked the rim, only to have his layup attempt rejected to the floor by O'Neal. Hawes recovered and kicked the ball out to an open Jrue Holiday, whose missed 3-pointer was then rebounded by O'Neal.
After O'Neal missed a fading jumper on the other end, Philly was back on the attack, but as Holiday streaked towards the rim, O'Neal stepped in to impede his path and once Holiday got in the air, he was forced to alter his shot because of O'Neal's presence, and missed a layup as a result. Less than two minutes later, Hawes had the ball inside, but once again had to go through O'Neal as he looked to score. While O'Neal wasn't credited with a block on the play, he contested Hawes' attempt and forced him to adjust in the air, resulting in another missed layup.
"The defensive end is where I'm more concerned about," said O'Neal. "I'm making sure that I wave at shots, because altering shots is just as good as a blocked shot. Covering the ground, covering the pick-and-roll. I felt really good, especially in the third quarter, being able to make multiple moves, being able to show, get back to the basket, try to contest a shot. Those are the things I'm really concentrating on."
O'Neal's missed jump shot that came in the midst of his defensive stand was one of his few blemishes on that end of the floor on Tuesday. His nine points marked his highest point total since he scored 12 all the way back on Nov. 5 in a 110-105 victory over the Chicago Bulls.
O'Neal scored his first four points off of two open shots within the first six minutes of the game. Kevin Garnett drove along the left baseline and fed him for an easy layup, and a little over a minute later, he slammed the ball home after a slick no-look feed from a slashing Ray Allen.
Being in the right position helped and O'Neal credited his teammates for helping him get in the right spots.
"I think the guys are doing a great job of talking to me during the flow of the game," said O'Neal, who admitted he's still adjusting to his team's offensive system that was altered during his absence. "That's very difficult to do, especially with a team like Philly, who's flying up and down the court. If you guys look, there's guys talking to me, I'm running down the court, they're calling out sets, I'm like, 'Where am I supposed to go?' Guys are making sure that I get there."
O'Neal said he felt more confident on the offensive end as the game progressed, and he came back in the final two minutes of the second quarter to register another two baskets -- this time with them contested by Philadelphia defenders. First he took a Rajon Rondo feed on the right side and hung in the air for a moment before releasing a shot off the glass over two 76ers, and followed it up with a tough up-and-under move on the left side off of a feed from Garnett. Finishing open layups was one thing, but putting in two of his first contested baskets since returning was another sign of his progression -- progression Paul Pierce is noticing.
"[O'Neal's] getting better and better every day," said Pierce. "He's getting his game legs in shape. He's getting into the right spots. When you miss that much time it's kind of difficult, but he's really progressing well and doing a lot of things that we haven't had all year long from a big man, such as alter shots, rebound, getting the ball in the middle, putting the ball in the hole, so it's big to have him back."
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com