With Shaq relegated to cheerleader duty down at the end of the bench in a black suit, and Kendrick Perkins out in Oklahoma City preparing for a playoff game, Boston Celtics fans had resigned themselves to the fact that this postseason run may be brief without a true big man in the middle.
Danny Ainge had done it. He ruined the chances of hanging another banner, No. 18, in Boston, when he rolled the dice and traded Perkins to the Thunder just prior to the trade deadline.
Jermaine O’Neal was an afterthought. No, he wasn’t even quite that relevant.
But lost among the sweet stroke of Ray Allen’s game-winning 3-pointer, the last of his 24 points on Sunday night, were the "other" O’Neal’s invaluable contributions.
It wasn’t just that the broken-down 32-year-old made all six of his shots. It was how he sacrificed his body to take charges, how he battled in the paint with Amar’e Stoudemire (28 points, 11 rebounds), and that he gave the Celtics a much-needed defensive presence in the paint.
"We won this game because of Jermaine O’Neal," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said following the 87-85 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. "That’s it."
O’Neal was signed by Ainge in the offseason almost as an insurance policy for Shaq. He wasn’t the same player who established himself as a force with the Indiana Pacers in the early 2000s — one who averaged a double-double in three consecutive seasons.
Boston had clear evidence: a playoff series exactly one year ago while O’Neal was with the Miami Heat.
"Sometimes people focus on what they last see," O’Neal said. "And what they last saw was a horrific shooting performance."
O’Neal looked more inept on the offensive end than Perkins. He shot a miserable 9 of 44 from the field in five games and mustered just 21 points.
And this was the guy Ainge was spending $12 million on over the next two years. O’Neal hadn’t logged more than 70 games in a season since 2003-04 and had battled endless ailments, the latest a nagging injury to his swollen left knee that finally resulted in surgery on Feb. 5.
O’Neal said he doesn’t listen to the critics, but he was well aware of what they were saying: This O’Neal had even less of a chance than the other one, seven years his elder, of coming back.
"When I had surgery, I wasn’t sure because you never know," O’Neal said. "You don’t know what they’ll find when they go in."
But when he was able to walk just a few days following the procedure, he knew he’d return.
"Then I never had any doubts," O’Neal said.
O’Neal did three weeks of intense rehab in Chicago with Michael Jordan’s famed trainer, Tim Grover, which helped allow him to rejoin the Celtics.
"It was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through in my 15 years in this league," O’Neal said.
With Shaq on the mend and virtually all of New England criticizing Ainge for unloading Perkins, a fan favorite due to his defense and toughness, O’Neal may have rescued Boston from a disastrous series-opening loss.
"He saved us," Ainge said.
There was no resemblance to the explosive O’Neal who was once one of the most feared frontcourt players in the league, but he gutted out 22 minutes, finished with 12 points, grabbed four rebounds, swatted four shots and altered several more.
"He was huge for them," Knicks forward Bill Walker acknowledged. "I think they were resting him for the playoffs."
The Celtics needed something. In the first half, they looked old. They couldn’t stop the Knicks — despite Carmelo Anthony sitting nearly the entire first quarter with foul trouble — and the offense was stagnant.
But then the team that was able to flip the switch a year ago did just that after the break, ramping up the defensive intensity, which resulted in more precise offensive execution, especially in the fourth quarter.
In crunch time, the plan is for Glen “Big Baby” Davis to finish the game in the middle along with three future Hall of Famers — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Allen — and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.
"It’s not how I planned it," Rivers said. "But J.O. played so well and we needed stops. … It was more of a gut."
And it resulted in the Celtics dodging a significant bullet.
Perkins has taken his toughness and scowl to the Midwest. Shaq’s return is still uncertain as Rivers said he’s day-to-day with his latest injury.
However, the Celtics still have that “other” O’Neal, the one who is no longer a forgotten man.