Never mind that Jermaine O'Neal can't remember his last practice.

"Funny, I couldn't even remember the last time I got on the bus or the team plane," O'Neal, who hasn't played in a game since Jan. 10 and had arthroscopic knee surgery on Feb. 4, said after yesterday's run with the Celtics. "It all felt good. It felt new. This has been the hardest year of my career. But it would be the best year of my career if we win the championship."

And if O'Neal's performance in yesterday's practice is any indication, he'll be of more immediate help to this struggling team than anyone anticipated. The center should, for instance, make at least a brief appearance in tonight's game against the Spurs.

"I'm going to start him — play him 40 minutes," a joking coach Doc Rivers said. "Obviously, if he can get through today and tonight he could, because we went hard and long."

So hard, in fact, that O'Neal needed a pair of breaks during yesterday's practice.

"A good question, I don't know," O'Neal said of how much he would be able to play tonight. "The first workout back I was so gassed, excited, that I almost didn't have anything in the tank and it was just from going through drills. Today I felt pretty good, but tomorrow I'll be gassed, so I don't know what kind of extended minutes the coach has planned. I'll just do the same thing I've been doing. When I left Chicago (where he was working out) it felt like the job was done — all the work in the weight room, the therapy. So you don't worry about that. I don't want to go back to the position I was in six or eight weeks ago.

"Felt good just getting some of the terminology back; for the most part physically I felt strong. It was just good to be out there, man. It felt good to be out there with the guys. I just have to continue to work and get in game time shape. I went out twice today for a brief possession or so, but it feels good to be getting ready for the stretch run."

There is one area, O'Neal's defensive instincts, that may pay an immediate dividend.