By A.Sherrod Blakely
SAN ANTONIO The grueling workouts, six days a week. The countless hours spent conditioning, trying to get his confidence up and game back on track while dropping a few pounds along the way.
This has been the journey taken by Jermaine O'Neal since he underwent left knee surgery on Feb. 5.
He's healthy now for the first time as a member of the Boston Celtics.
And while he still has some rust to shake off, the 6-foot-11 center made the kind of return that the C's desperately needed to knock off San Antonio, 107-97.
O'Neal, who hadn't played since Jan. 10, had five points in just over 11 minutes of action against the Spurs.
"I couldn't pick a better place than come and challenge what I've been through the last few months, than against a good team like San Antonio," O'Neal said.
Prior to the game, Doc Rivers made it clear that he had no idea how much he would get from O'Neal, or how long he would be able to use him.
Rivers liked what he saw from O'Neal offensively, but he was even more impressed with his defense.
The turning point in Boston's win on Thursday came in the third quarter.
O'Neal entered the game with 4:45 to play in the third, and the Celtics down 67-65.
By the time the quarter ended, the Celtics had a seven-point lead with him on the floor.
"I was happy to see him defensively moving, very well," Rivers said.
So were his teammates.
And while there are some who are concerned about whether there's enough time for Jermaine O'Neal to get up to speed, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo doesn't believe that's an issue.
"I think he is up to speed," said Rondo, who had 22 points and 14 assists for his team-leading 28th double-double of the season. "I say he's got to get his conditioning. Being out so long, the one thing you don't take for granted, especially when you get out there on the court, you're banging bodies, and you're on pick and roll, so if he can get his conditioning back he'll be fine."
O'Neal was pleased for the most part with his play against the Spurs.
But it's just a start.
O'Neal knows he has plenty of room to improve, and plans to do so.
"I look at what I did today," he said. "I have to be better tomorrow."