TORONTO - Moments before Jermaine O'Neal crashed to the floor injuring his knee against the New Jersey Nets last Friday, he was sitting on the Toronto Raptors bench and staring at his cumbersome knee brace, trying to decide whether he should put it on.
He figures that brace saved his season.
"God is good," O'Neal said. "We talked about it, the training staff and the doctors, and I probably would have been done for the year if I hadn't had the brace on."
O'Neal didn't practise Tuesday, and is uncertain whether he'll play Wednesday when the Raptors host the Charlotte Bobcats.
The 6-11 centre has worn a brace religiously since having surgery to repair the left knee that kept him out of 42 games in Indiana last season. The strap kept coming undone Friday night, and he ended up playing most of the third quarter without it before a trainer brought him another one before the start of the fourth.
"I looked at the brace for 50 straight seconds, I just looked at it and I wasn't going to put it on, then I said, you know what, I'll put it on, and as soon as I got back in the game, I hurt my knee."
O'Neal strained his knee in the first minute of the fourth quarter when he was dragged down from behind by New Jersey's Sean Williams, and felt the stabilizing parts on either side of the brace straining under his weight as he fell.
"If that part's not there, I probably tear every ligament in my knee," O'Neal said. "I felt pretty lucky about the situation. You probably won't see me out there without it anymore."
O'Neal started Sunday against Boston just two days after playing the Nets, but lasted just 14 minutes. He also hurt his ankle in that game when he came down awkwardly on the foot of a Celtics player, and insisted it's his ankle that's keeping him off the court now, not his knee.
"I'm not worried at all about the knee, the knee looks really good, no swelling," he said, tugging up the leg of his sweatpants to show reporters. "For everybody out there that's wondering about the knee, the knee is great.
"The ankle's a little fat right now, but it's coming along."
The Raptors could certainly use O'Neal, especially his defensive presence after allowing the Celtics to shoot 62 per cent Sunday - the highest ever by an opponent at the Air Canada Centre.
"We started off great defensively," said Anthony Parker. "For the first couple of games we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, we were holding teams to a good field goal percentage and we've just got to get back to that."
The Raptors have also struggled at home, losing four of their six games at the ACC this season, including the first two of their current four-game homestand. Toronto is 4-3 on the road.
"We've played well on the road, we've played well in spurts at home, we just haven't put a whole game together," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "We haven't shot the ball like we're capable, we haven't clicked on all cylinders in a game yet, and you keep feeling like at some point we're due to do that, to bust out of that."
The injuries certainly haven't helped. O'Neal was coming off several strong games before he got hurt, including a 16-point, 17-rebound performance against Miami. Point guard Jose Calderon missed two games with a hamstring injury and isn't yet 100 per cent.
Mitchell said injuries are part of the game.
"It's tough but every team goes through that," Mitchell said. "As a coach, you don't sit around and cry and worry and complain about guys getting nicked up. Your job is to get everybody ready to play."
O'Neal said he prefers to take a cautious approach after playing through pain in his last two seasons with the Pacers.
"It's just making sure I don't go into the same transition that I did the last couple of years in Indiana, getting injured and then playing on it and playing on it until it became something else," O'Neal said. "It's not even a serious situation, I think everybody because they haven't seen me the last couple of days thinks that it's a lot worse but it really isn't.
"It's not a situation where we're talking about missing 20, 15, 10 games. It's just so early in the season, you don't want to risk anything."