When the Boston Celtics chose to sign Jermaine O’Neal to a two-year, $12-million deal last July, the loudest of many snickers heard around the NBA were coming from Miami.

The Heat had just watched O’Neal feebly try to play with Kevin GarnettKendrick Perkins and the rest of the Celtics in a first-round playoff loss. To say that O’Neal was bad would be a disservice to bad. Awful, horrible, hideous would be more accurate adjectives. With the Heat wanting to attack the free-agent market, getting ride of O’Neal and his hefty contract was an easy decision for Pat Riley.

Now it’s a year later and the 32-year-old O’Neal has changed colors. He’s wearing Celtic green and is the team’s starting center. If the Heat can close out the Philadelphia 76ers, he’ll be ready to serve as a defensive anchor against Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Kendrick Perkins traded and Shaquille O’Neal still hobbled by a calf injury, the big man the Celts call J.O. is about to earn his stripes.

“We really locked down and made sure every shot was contested,” O’Neal said after Sunday’s 101-89 win over the Knicks that gave the Celtics a 4-0 series sweep. “Our defense will be our anchor if we’re going to win this championship.”

Any championship hopes begin and end with defense for Boston. The Celtics allowed the fewest points in the NBA (91.1) during the regular season, but did so largely without O’Neal. He battled a series of injuries and had knee surgery that limited him to 24 games. He didn’t return from the knee injury until March 31 and is only now rounding into form.

What he provided in the Knicks series is the type of play the Celtics identified as a need when they signed him last summer. In 23 minutes a game, the 6-foot-11 big man averaged four rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 5.5 points on 61-percent shooting. His value was apparent in the opening minute of Sunday’s Game Four. Filled with energy, the Knicks’ Amare Stoudemire took the ball hard to the basket on the first possession. O’Neal was waiting for him and drew an immediate offensive charging foul. At the other end of the floor, O’Neal shook free and drained an open 16-foot jumper for the game’s first points.

“I’m starting to feel like I’m covering a lot of ground. I feel healthy,” O’Neal said. “It may not always show up on the stat sheet, but I feel that I can really help this team on the defensive end. I can make guys guess when they go to the cup.”

This is music to coach Doc Rivers’ ears. All season long he’s been asked just who will fill the lane on defense come playoff time. Once Danny Ainge traded Perkins to Oklahoma City in February, Rivers consistently answered that he needed “one of the O’Neals” come playoff time. Shaquille O’Neal remains out with a calf injury, although his chances for a playoff debut could come in the next round. That leaves Jermaine O’Neal and the irony of him trying to halt the Heat’s ordained run to a championship is poignant.

Last spring, the Heat asked O’Neal to shoulder a much different load. Wade was the team’s undisputed scoring star, but O’Neal and Michael Beasley were the two main guns inside. O’Neal hurt his ankle early in the first-round series against Boston and managed a mere 4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds a game. He shot a ghastly 20 percent (9-for-44) from the field and the Celtics took the series, 4-1.

O’Neal won’t see anywhere close to that number of shots in a series against Miami. Instead, he’ll be asked to rebound and defend Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Joel Anthony and provide the toughness that Perkins was known for. In Boston’s only regular-season loss to Miami earlier this month, O’Neal served notice that he’s up to that task. As James flew down the court on a fastbreak, O’Neal came over to cut off his path and threw much of his 255 pounds into James’ shoulder. The Heat’s star took exception and all sorts of huffing, puffing, pushing and shoving ensued.

The Celtics will look for an even larger dose of that tough guy play, plus as many rebounds and blocked shots as O’Neal can muster as the playoffs roll on.




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