Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal isn't focused on his offensive production.
Sure, he'll roll to the basket for a layup after setting a screen for Ray Allen, and he's certainly not against shooting an open jump shot when it's available, but he doesn't want to be judged based on what happens on that end of the floor.
O'Neal, like all of his teammates, plays a specific role on this Celtics team -- his being that of a hard-nosed, interior, one-on-one defender, a reliable help defender with shot-blocking abilities, and a forceful rebounder. In fact, he doesn't even want to discuss the other half of the equation.
"The fact of the matter is, with me here, [Celtics coach Doc Rivers] has given his role," said O'Neal after Boston's 97-88 loss to the Thunder on Monday. "So, all the debate about whether I score, if I score, shots, whatever it is, I probably won't even answer that any more after this time. For the people who are out there wondering about production with me scoring, that's not my role. My role has been given to me, and my role has been said to be a defender, not [a scorer]."
O'Neal, though, did score against the Thunder, racking up 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting over 26 minutes. But more importantly, for both O'Neal, and the Celtics as a team, he came through with 11 rebounds, a block, two steals, and one charge drawn, finishing with his first double-double of the season (and only second in a Celtics uniform).
The Celtics recorded their fifth consecutive loss and now sit at a disdainful 4-8, but in their ongoing search for positives through this turbulent time, they might just be able to take solace in O'Neal's recent production. River is still experimenting with his starting lineup, sometimes favoring O'Neal over Brandon Bass, and vice versa. But Monday marked the second straight game O'Neal reached double figures in rebounding, having hauled in a season-high 12 in a 97-83 loss to the Pacers on Saturday.
"I'm starting to get my legs back as far as rebounding, my timing, and all of that -- that's my concern," O'Neal said.
Added C's captain Paul Pierce: "[O'Neal] gave us a great performance tonight. If we can get that out of JO on any given night, that he's capable of that, that's going to be great for our team, just showing that he can rebound with the best of them. We already know about his shot blocking abilities. And you can kind of see his legs kind of come around, also."
O'Neal's impact Monday was perhaps best felt in the third quarter, when the Celtics were once again trying to mount a rally out of the hole they had dug themselves. Playing just over eight minutes in that third frame, O'Neal recorded six points and six rebounds, greatly aiding Boston's comeback attempt.
With the C's trailing 57-53 with a little over five minutes remaining in the quarter, O'Neal missed a layup, but gobbled up his own miss and laid it back in, bringing the Celtics within two. On the following Thunder possession, O'Neal grabbed a Thabo Sefolosha miss, got the ball in Rajon Rondo's hands, and booked it towards the other end of the floor, where Rondo rewarded him with a crisp pass inside that he converted into another layup, tying the game at 57.
"[O'Neal] was phenomenal. He was phenomenal," Rivers said. "JO gave us a huge lift. He played with great energy."
Kevin Garnett echoed Rivers' sentiments.
"Doc re-defined roles and sort of went around and whatever, so [O'Neal's] been playing with a chip, a little bit, and it's good," Garnett said. "I thought he was very, very good tonight. He was the anchor of the defense. In order for us to come out of this, not only JO, but myself, and the other bigs, and the other players here, we're going to have to continue to play not only solid, but consistent. And I was happy for him tonight. He played real great for us tonight."
The chip on O'Neal's shoulder that Garnett alluded to might stem over his frustration at being critiqued for not putting enough points on the board. After Monday's loss, O'Neal made it a point to stress how he hopes to no longer be judged on anything having to do with his offensive production.
"I think there's a lot of misconception, a lot of debate, from people who supposedly analyze the game," O'Neal said at the start of his interview with the media. "I think when you analyze the game, you've got to know what position the team has players in. It's easy to sit behind tables and say what you think is going on... If you judge me, judge me on [my role]. Judge me on how I get out on the pick-and-roll and help the guards stop penetration. Judge me on how I step up on penetration, those types of things. But this debate about my production as scoring, I mean, I know that's kind of been the MO for me during my career, especially in Indiana -- I was a scorer -- but that's not my position right now, so my preference is to probably not even speak about that any more. If I'm not rebounding, I'm not blocking shots, I'm not taking charges, I'm not getting on that perimeter and helping the guards, then we've got a conversation to have."