- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had just dubbed him the training camp MVP, and inside the locker room after the team's mid-December intrasquad scrimmage at TD Garden, veteran center Jermaine O'Neal beamed with pride as he informed a handful of reporters of a lofty goal for the 2011-12 season: to play 90 percent of Boston's games.
"My goal is to stay healthy, so that when Doc calls on me, I'm ready to go," O'Neal said. "I just don't want to be hurt."
Unfortunately, the 33-year-old O'Neal always was hurt and struggled to stay on the floor. After missing 77 of 126 regular-season games with the Celtics, O'Neal's 2011-12 season and two frustrating years in Boston ended Monday night when the team announced he will undergo season-ending surgery on an ailing left wrist.
"I give [O'Neal] a lot of credit," Rivers said before the Celtics' game in Atlanta on Monday night. "He did what he needed to do -- I mean he tried" to get back on the floor.
He simply couldn't stay there.
O'Neal arrived in Boston during the summer of 2010 with hopes of helping the Celtics, who were less than a month removed from a stinging Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, secure the world title that had evaded Boston -- and him throughout his career.
The Celtics paid a steep price with a two-year deal at the full value of the midlevel exception (a total of $12 million), but after rebounding woes plagued the team in the NBA Finals against the Lakers, they hoped O'Neal would bolster the frontcourt while Kendrick Perkins rehabbed following ACL surgery.
Instead, O'Neal logged more time in the trainer's room than on the floor. He missed 58 games last season, initially trying to rehab a chronic left knee injury before finally electing to have in-season surgery.
O'Neal returned for the final weeks of the regular season and the playoffs only to aggravate the left wrist injury that would ultimately cut short his 2011-12 campaign -- and maybe his career.
Injured while taking a charge against the New York Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs, O'Neal gutted out the rest of the postseason but elected against surgery this past summer. It seemed like a curious decision given the impending lockout, which would have afforded him additional time to rehab before the start of the new season.
Instead, O'Neal rolled the dice on his health and, as was the case for much of the latter stages of his career, he crapped out.
Rivers seemed perturbed at times last season when O'Neal was away from the team rehabbing his knee. Rivers seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt after he showed up eager to win the coach over this preseason, engaging in heightened training camp reps and showing a more vocal side that suggested he had bought into Boston's system.
But minor injuries still dotted the early part of the season, even as O'Neal appeared in 25 of the team's first 31 games. Then he aggravated the wrist injury Feb. 20 against the Dallas Mavericks while taking a charge and spent the past month in limbo while again trying to rehab it before finally electing for the season-ending surgery on Monday.
Rivers never seemed to expect O'Neal back, saying last week in Sacramento, "If he comes back, he comes back. If he doesn't, we've been pretty good."
If O'Neal could have stayed healthy, the Celtics actually would have loved to have him on the floor -- given the alternative is signing a buyout player or free agent off the street. Morphing into a defense-first player in the latter stages of his career, O'Neal often earned gushing reviews from Rivers for his ability to both block shots and take charges.
Alas, the latter of those talents might have contributed to the end of his season. And you get the sense that the injuries and constant uncertainty about when he'd be on the floor had made his situation more of a headache than it was worth.
Even as the trade deadline passed with the Celtics unable to move O'Neal's contract, this after nearly sending him out in a swap for David West in the preseason, the lingering situation likely left Rivers eager for a resolution and to allow the team to pursue a much-needed big man.
The Celtics will likely examine a buyout with O'Neal in order to open his roster spot. Boston is being patient in its big-man search, both to allow O'Neal's situation to play out and in hopes of landing the best-available body.
But Rivers admitted they'll take anyone over 6-foot-6 as long as they can do one thing: Stay on the floor.
Unfortunately for O'Neal, he could never do that with the Celtics. If this is his last stop on a 16-year NBA journey, a failed Boston run shouldn't take away from his accomplishments.
Nevertheless, the injuries will be the way his Celtics career will be remembered. Like his goal of playing 90 percent of the games this season, the expectations were lofty but never translated on the floor.
Jermaine O'Neal's relationship with the Celtics ended with broken dreams.