WALTHAM, Mass. -- If the Boston Celtics had their way this Christmas, the Santa Claus who comes sliding down their chimney would be dressed, not all in fur, but in an XL green jersey with No. 7 emblazoned on its front. He'd look less like a jolly old elf and more -- with apologies to "The Night Before Christmas" scribe Clement Clarke Moore -- like a 7-foot center with a sleigh full of frontcourt skills and a headband encircling his head like a wreath. He would look, in fact, exactly like Jermaine O'Neal.
It's true: A healthy, driven and productive O'Neal would be the biggest gift the Celtics could possibly receive this holiday season. After his feeble, largely innocuous performance in 24 games last year, it's been easy to forget how good this guy was. Here's a quick reminder:
Between 2002 and 2007, O'Neal was a six-time All-Star. In 90 career playoff games, he has averaged 12 points and nearly 7 rebounds a game. His lifetime per-game averages are 14 points, 7.4 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks.
Heck, O'Neal's already won the NBA Most Improved Player award (2002). Who's to say he can't do it again?
Certainly not O'Neal himself.
"I feel good," he said when asked about his condition going into the Christmas opener.
"[The last time I felt this good] was probably my last year with Miami (2009-2010), when I played like 73 games."
(Close -- he played 70, starting each one).
"That year," O'Neal went on, "I felt strong, I felt knowledgeable about the system, felt comfortable with the guys. And then last year, I don't think anyone knew what to expect from me because I wasn't out there [due to knee and wrist injuries].
"Last year I was kind of under the gun. I ended up getting hurt the second or third day of training camp, missed some of the schemes [the Celtics] were putting in, and I never really caught up. I had to deal with trying to catch up, trying to physically get healthy. That was tough. Now I feel healthy, I feel strong, I feel like I know what I'm doing out here, which is key."
He's certainly had a good preseason. In Wednesday's exhibition win over the Toronto Raptors, O'Neal had 4 blocks in just 12 minutes. At times he looked certifiably dominant in the defensive paint. It seems he's performed well in practice, too: Celtics head coach Doc Rivers called him the MVP of training camp.
O'Neal doesn't need to be the MVP of the regular season. He simply needs to show up, crash the boards, smother opposing centers, and stay healthy. It's definitely possible. He looks good. He looks trim. He sounds determined to reclaim at least a pinch of his past glory. He doesn't need magic -- just continued good health.
Leave all the other stuff to Santa.