Celtics will go as far as J.O. takes them

BOSTON -- Jermaine O'Neal quietly, but hardly unobtrusively, left the Celtics bench midway through the third quarter of Wednesday night's exhibition game against Toronto and headed to the locker room.

Normally, that would be a red flag the size of Alaska.

But on this night, it was merely an official recognition on the part of the Celtics and their one (and only NBA-ready) center that it was time to call it a night. He wanted a massage and his coach, Doc Rivers, was only too happy to accommodate.

"He's old,'' Rivers said of his not-that-old (33) center. "I didn't want him falling asleep on the bench. I told him he wasn't going to play a lot anyway."

By the time the final horn sounded, and the Celtics had their 81-73 victory, O'Neal had, as they say, left the building.

His final line in the Celtics' second victory over the lottery-bound Raptors was hardly a jaw-dropper: 12 minutes, 0 points, 2 rebounds but -- and you knew there would have to be a "but" -- 4 blocked shots. He was Tim Thomas around the Celtics' basket, using his left hand, as so many excellent right-handed shot-blockers (think Kevin McHale) are inclined to do. Raptors coach Dwane Casey noted two early O'Neal rejections "got us on our heels" and set the tone for the night.

"He protects the basket,'' Rivers said of O'Neal. "His timing is just amazing. What you saw out there is what we've been seeing since the first day of training camp, when I said he was our MVP."

One thing we are learning rather quickly about what will be the 2011-12 Boston Celtics is that they need a healthy Jermaine O'Neal to do anything. Normally, "healthy Jermaine O'Neal" would be seen as your basic sports oxymoron. The guy has an unfortunate history of getting hurt and, in his one and only season to date for the Celtics, missed 58 games. In the past six years, he has missed the equivalent of nearly two full seasons (162 games).

The Celtics had the depth at the position last season (or so they thought) to absorb O'Neal's abbreviated stint. They had Shaquille O'Neal. They had Kendrick Perkins coming back midseason. They had Glen Davis in a pinch. They had Nenad Krstic after Perkins was traded.

Of those five centers or crypto-centers, only Jermaine O'Neal remains with the team. Depth is no longer a luxury at the position. And given the present alternatives -- undersized Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox and the callow if persistent Greg Stiemsma -- O'Neal casts a rather large shadow on the proceedings going forward.

Unless Rivers decides to go with his small lineup more than usual, O'Neal must be there. He averaged 18 minutes a game last season, which simply won't do this season. He is going to need to be closer to his career average of 28 and he is going to have to stay healthy.

That is the real worry, isn't it? He's like Marcus Camby, an injury waiting to happen. The biggest question mark is not his game, but his health. Relying on someone with O'Neal's injury history, especially in a lockout-shortened season, is a huge risk. But it's one the Celtics are taking. Samuel Dalembert is not walking through that door anytime soon.

Rivers has said from day one that O'Neal has been among the biggest and most pleasant of surprises since training camp officially opened. He is one of four Celtics who endured the 1998-99 lockout so he had some experience on how to deal with all the downtime.
Let's just say he didn't spend it at Dunkin' Donuts. He knows how to play.

"You rarely see a guy who blocks shots and takes charges,'' Rivers said of O'Neal. "He does both."

O'Neal was still riding the bench in Portland when Rick Pitino and Chris Wallace offered three first-round picks for the then unproven but promising center. The Trail Blazers said no thanks and O'Neal soon developed into an All-Star, but only after being dealt to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis.

He's been an NBA All-Star and represented Uncle Sam for USA Basketball. He's been the NBA's Most Improved Player and he's been a second-team and third-team All-NBA selection. But all that came a long time ago. That Jermaine O'Neal is not walking through the door anytime soon, either.

All the Celtics are asking is that the Jermaine O'Neal of 2011-12 be a reliable, everyday, reasonably productive starting center. Is that asking too much? Let the games begin and we will all find out.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.