What a week for Jermaine O'Neal.
When the 18th year veteran signed a one-year, $2 million deal in July, it was relatively impossible to envision he'd be this important. But if the Warriors turn out to be as good as many expect, we'll look back on this stretch for O'Neal and regard it as one of the most pivotal stretches of the season.
And the highlight of his throwback stretch came Tuesday. Golden State rallied from a 27-point deficit to turn a sleeper of a game into a 112-103 instant classic. And the center of it was Jermaine O'Neal. His presence, toughness and emotion anchored the dramatic defensive turnaround that powered the historic comeback.
The Warriors trailed by 75-48 with 9:20 left in the third quarter. Over the next 21 minutes and 19 seconds of the game, Golden State held the Raptors to 28 points on 10 of 28 shooting and forced eight turnovers.
It got ridiculous in the fourth quarter, as Golden State smashed on Toronto 42-15 over the last 12 minutes. The Warriors outrebounded the Raptors 14-1 in the fourth quarter, O'Neal had six of those boards. After the home team cut the lead to single digits, O'Neal kept it there with a clutch block on Amir Johnson's putback at the 7:00 mark.
O'Neal played all but the final 17 seconds of the fourth quarter. The Raptors managed just 5 of 16 shooting while he was on the court.
No, O'Neal wasn't alone. You don't win games like that without a star dominating, and Stephen Curry was every bit that. He finished with 27 points, 10 assists and five steals. He produced 28 of the Warriors' last 31 points.
Klay Thompson, who hit four 3s in the final quarter, picked a great time to get hot. David Lee's interior passing was spectacular and a big reason the Warriors shot 68.4 percent in the fourth quarter and had 10 assists on 13 made baskets. Draymond Green was lights out defensively.
But comebacks like these are founded on heart. Somebody has to say enough is enough. Somebody had to muster enough fight to affect change. And it was the guy who before Tuesday night had logged 26,725 minutes in the NBA.
It began with his halftime speech.
"Jermaine O'Neal gave one of the realest halftime speeches I have ever heard," Thompson said in the postgame interview for the television broadcast. "He said we'll see what we're made of in the second half."
Grooming for his post-NBA career as a motivational speaker, O'Neal, I'm told, pleaded for his team to "show some resolve." What's more, he outright challenged them to prove they are legitimate with their play in the second half.
My guess, knowing his passion, he set aside his new efforts to stop cursing during this rallying cry.
But O'Neal isn't just the know-it-all vet who likes to hear himself talk but can't produce on the court. He went out there and backed it up.
Last Tuesday, O'Neal shocked the Warriors' world with an 18-point, eight-rebound performance in a much-needed win at New Orleans. He had missed the last four games with a strained right groin, a bruised right knee, a sore right wrist and a viral infection. But his inspired play helped the Warriors snap a three-game losing streak despite being down two starters (Andre Iguodala injured and Andrew Bogut suspended).
The pairing of a rejuvenated O'Neal with a healthy Andrew Bogut has the Warriors looking pretty formidable at center. It seems in O'Neal, Golden State has gotten a locker room presence, an enforcer off the bench, a productive back-up center and a back-up speech giver to give noted motivator Mark Jackson a rest.
"I didn't say a word (at halftime)," said Jackson, who allowed his former All-Star center to undress his teammates. Then, "I pretty much wrapped it up with 'bring it in.' Best speech I ever gave."