|Center Jermaine O’Neal, making his seventh start of the season, dunks for 2 of his 9 points. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
O’Neal enjoys a fresh start
Jermaine working way into shape
It didn’t happen exactly how Celtics coach Doc Rivers drew it up, but Jermaine O’Neal is the team’s starting center, just the way Rivers projected it back in training camp.
O’Neal scored 9 points in the Celtics’ 99-82 win over the 76ers last night at TD Garden, knocking down 4 of 6 shots in his seventh start of the season.
O’Neal, recently back after being out two months recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, took advantage of being on the floor with four All-Stars, but for the most part he was just trying to take instructions from them. With the action around him a blur, they called out plays and yelled to tell him the spots he needed to be in.
“I think the guys are doing a great job of talking to me during the game,’’ O’Neal said. “That’s very difficult to do, especially against a team like Philly that’s flying up and down the court.
“If you guys look, it’s guys talking to me, I’m running down the court and they’re calling out sets. I’m like, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’ And the guys are making sure I get there.’’
O’Neal played 13 minutes, and said that he’s ready to see more time on the floor with five games left in the regular season. Rivers wasn’t sure what O’Neal would be able to contribute, but the center is defending and rebounding.
“He’s just been really good since he’s been back,’’ Rivers said. “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.’’
Paul Pierce added, “He’s getting better every day. He’s getting his legs in game shape. He’s getting into the right spots. When you miss so 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.’’
Nenad Krstic returned to the lineup after missing two games with a bone bruise in his right knee. There’s some lingering soreness, he said, but he’s relieved the injury wasn’t serious.
“Doctors said I’m probably going to feel it for at least the next three weeks,’’ Krstic said.
Krstic had started 18 straight games after coming to Boston at the trade deadline. Rivers said he didn’t think Krstic would have any issues switching to a reserve role.
“He’ll be ready,’’ Rivers said. “He’s already proven. In Oklahoma, he played five minutes, 20 minutes, he always was ready to come in.’’
Sizing up foe The 76ers are penciling in Miami or Boston for their postseason opponent, and even though they are 1-6 against the Heat and Celtics, they like their chances against either of the Eastern Conference powerhouses.
Their first two losses to the Celtics were by a combined 5 points, and their March 11 win at the
“We feel like we’ve played them well,’’ said 76ers coach Doug Collins. “But you don’t wish for the Celtics, I know that.’’
The Sixers are sixth in the East, a half-game ahead of the Knicks. The Celtics are tied for second with the Heat.
“We’re going to play Miami or Boston,’’ Collins said. “We’ve got our hands full with whoever we play.’’
Matching up with young, pesky teams in the first round is something of a habit for the Celtics, who had to get past the Hawks in 2008 and the Bulls in 2009.
“Everybody in the playoffs can cause trouble,’’ Rivers said. “If you’re in the playoffs, I think you’re in there to cause trouble. They’re just playing well. They’ve bought into it, and I think Doug is preaching.’’
Pierce said the Sixers are cut from the mold of this year’s Nuggets, with a wealth of talent starting and coming off the bench.
“They’re their own identity,’’ Pierce said. “They’re definitely athletic. But they present their own problems. They don’t have the one All-Star player you talk about when you talk about Atlanta. They just have a lot a really, really good players.’’
Collins, a coach of the year candidate for getting a young group to jell, said that by playing a series against a championship contender, “We’ll learn more in two weeks than we have in 82 games.’’
Allen improves Ray Allen, in something of a slump recently, knocked down 5 of 7 shots from the floor, scoring 13 points. “Ray never lost his confidence, he just never hit a shot,’’ Rivers said. “Ray is shooting anything leather. He’s not going to lose confidence. He’s going to struggle like we all struggle at times, but I’ve never seen Ray lack confidence.’’ . . . Forward Troy Murphy played three minutes after missing six games with a sprained right ankle . . . Glen Davis had both fists wrapped heavily with ice before the game. He jammed his finger early in the Celtics’ win over the Pistons but said the injury wasn’t serious.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.