BOSTON -- If last season taught Jermaine O'Neal anything, it was to ignore public opinion.
Just three games into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, O'Neal was already being blasted by the skeptics -- the same doubters who questioned his ability to return from mid-season knee surgery to perform in last season's playoffs. This time around, O'Neal's health was only a small part of the equation, as his inability to stay on the floor during the Celtics' first three games (all losses) due to foul trouble, and unproductive play already started a storm of speculation as to whether he even deserved his starting spot.
But much like in the playoffs last season, O'Neal's response came in the form of an explosive performance -- this one a 19-point, seven-rebound, two-block outing that helped propel the Celtics to their first win of the season, a 96-85 triumph over the Detroit Pistons.
The key for O'Neal this time around? Simply staying on the court.
"I think I almost played to the two-minute mark of the first quarter, which is something I haven't done," O'Neal said. "The first two games I think I picked up two fouls within the first three, four minutes. And the thing is, when you pick up two fouls early, that makes you very tentative about your decision making and things that you want to do, whether it's taking a charge, or trying to post up, or just trying to help on defense. And tonight, it was a good flow, from start to finish, for me."
The rest fell into place. Being able to remain on the court for extended stretches allowed O'Neal to thrive in the areas he is meant to thrive in, particularly setting screens, rebounding, and interior defense. His 19 points -- which was a career-high for him as a Celtic -- were generated from his production in those other areas. Throughout the game, O'Neal set various screens for the likes of Ray Allen, and after delaying Allen's defender, a simple cut to the basket and a feed from Allen put him in ideal position to score the ball. He finished the night having made seven of nine shots, and he buried all five of his free throw attempts.
"He made shots, but the offensive part, to me, came from him doing his job, really," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of O'Neal. "I told him that. I thought he was really focused on setting picks and rebounding and doing all the little things.
"He kept setting picks for Ray [Allen], and listen, JO's no dummy.If you set a pick on Ray, everyone's jumping to Ray and he kept slipping it. He saw it early in the game. And that's brilliant."
The points, though, were not O'Neal's top priority. He also posted season-highs in minutes played and rebounds, and his two blocks tied a season-high. The increased production in these other areas was what O'Neal was most encouraged by.
"I rebounded the ball better today," said O'Neal. "That's the one thing I was a little disappointed about. Scoring is going to come, it's going to go. Obviously I don't want to be judged off of how many points I score, because that's not my role with this team. My role is to go down in the defensive paint, block shots, take charges, and when I get an opportunity to score, then score. But it does feel good to be out there. I have been working hard this summer, and you want to play. You want to be out there to perform and show people what you worked on."
O'Neal's defense, while improving -- a loud block on Jason Maxiell during the third frame was highlight-worthy -- still needs improvement, as does the team's overall, and O'Neal was willing to acknowledge that fact.
"Well, you know, we haven't been able to practice since before the season," he said. "So, [the defense is] kind of a work in progress."
But consider Friday's win a colossal step in the right direction on virtually all fronts for Boston's man in the middle.
Said Kevin Garnett: "Jermaine was super tonight. He had a lot of energy to begin with. He was active. The things he was able to do for us tonight was tremendous on both ends. He controlled the defensive end. Went toe to toe to control the paint. Offensively, he was aggressive.”
Added Paul Pierce: "That was the breakout game [O'Neal] needed, hopefully, to continue to be a solid contributor for us."
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com