By A.Sherrod Blakely
CHICAGO Inside the mind of Boston Celtics big man Jermaine O'Neal, you'll find images of confetti streaming down from high atop the ceiling.
There are people, lots of them. The only thing that might be in greater numbers, are the tears shed by O'Neal.
They are tears of joy because all the long, painful hours he put in trying to recover from a potential season-ending knee injury, have paid off as he helped the Celtics bring home Banner 18.
It's all in his head -- for now.
But such imagery from O'Neal isn't all that surprising when you consider the six-time All-Star is also a movie producer with his most recent project, "Inheritance," slated to be released some time this year.
Nearing the end of his basketball career, O'Neal tells CSNNE.com that this is something that he will explore even more so when he's done playing.
For now, he's more focused on helping produce an NBA championship.
And the road map to making that happen includes several weeks spent here in Chicago with training guru Tim Grover as part of his recovery from left knee surgery in February.
"It was basically like training camp, with two-a-days for like three weeks," O'Neal told CSNNE.com, adding that Sunday was the only day he took off during those weeks.
There's little doubt that since O'Neal returned to the Celtics, he looks more like the guy that started 72 games last year for the Miami Heat, than the injury-riddled player Celtics fans had seen pre-left knee surgery.
His numbers in the four games since his return won't wow you -- 4.8 points, 2.8 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game.
But there's no mistaking the 6-foot-11 center has made an impact in the one area the Celtics have been sorely lacking since trading away Kendrick Perkins on Feb. 24 -- interior defense.
Boston has ranked among the NBA's leaders in scoring defense all season, and is currently tops in the NBA by giving up just 90.8 points per game.
In the last four games -- three Celtics wins -- that number has dropped to 89.3 points per game. O'Neal has started the last two games, and the Celtics have given up just 86 points per game.
Now that can't all be attributed to the return of O'Neal. But having him back certainly hasn't hurt.
Coach Doc Rivers has been singing the praises of O'Neal ever since he returned to the lineup.
He was especially pleased with the way O'Neal played in Boston's 99-82 win over Philadelphia on Tuesday.
O'Neal had nine points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in just under 13 minutes.
"JO was terrific," Rivers said. "You know, he was aggressive, he was attacking, his defense was phenomenal. He's just been really good since he's been back; just buys in; we rarely go to him but he gets the ball in the right places because he's in the right spots. Defensively he's been very good."
Glen Davis is also among the Celtics glad to see O'Neal back on the floor.
"Having Jermaine makes it easier for all of us," Glen Davis told CSNNE.com. "He gives us another guy with size, around the basket, who can defend. It helps you at both ends of the floor, really."
Because of his added post presence, the Celtics can now get out in transition more following a defensive stop.
He's even had moments since returning when he has been able to out-run his defender up court and finish around the basket.
You hardly saw that at all before the injury. Part of that was because he wasn't healthy.
O'Neal admitted that there were also some trust issues as well.
"Because I wasn't healthy, the guys really didn't know what I could do to help offensively," he told CSNNE.com. "So when I came back, it was just a matter of showing them, showing Doc that I was back, that they could go to me if they wanted to and I would come through. We never really had a chance to establish that the way I would have wanted to, before the surgery."
O'Neal understands that he will never be a No. 1, 2 or even 3 option with this team.
Simply being part of a squad that's playing for something bigger than a paycheck, he says, is all he wants now.
And while this isn't his first time being part of a title contender, he admits it's more special because of the timing.
"Opportunities before," O'Neal said, "it was like how many opportunities am I going to have? That was the thought process. But now, there's no guarantee I'm going to play after next year," he said. "There's no guarantee we're going to play at all next year, as a league. You have to value these opportunities, because they are not a given."
When O'Neal entered the league straight from high school, he was part of a talented Portland team that included former Celtic Rasheed Wallace.
Although he didn't play much early on, those teams routinely made it deep into the playoffs.
And after he was traded to Indiana, the Pacers soon made deep playoff runs an expectation when former Celtic great Larry Bird was the head coach.
But those times are in the past now.
Those teams, that success, that Jermaine O'Neal . . . nothing but memories now.
He's looking to create some new ones now.
And they all center around one thing: Banner 18.
"I get emotional about it because I know that feeling; that feeling . . . you want that feeling," O'Neal said. "You want to go through that. God willing, I'll get that opportunity because I may not get that opportunity again if I don't get it this year."
And that, O'Neal said, would be the perfect storybook ending to his playing career a story that just might be at movie theater near you someday.
"You never know," said O'Neal, smiling. "You never know."