Raptors centre Jermaine O'Neal is ready to brace himself for whatever comes next.
O'Neal is nursing a strained left knee and a twisted left ankle, injuries that occurred last Friday against the New Jersey Nets but were not serious enough to keep him out of the lineup against the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
Whether O'Neal plays tonight against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Air Canada Centre won't be known until later in the day. But he has a good idea that he would be in a world of trouble had he not been wearing a brace on his knee when he got hurt against the Nets.
"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 said. "I looked at the brace for 50 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."
When he was pulled to the floor by the Nets' Sean Williams, O'Neal could feel the brace doing its work, keeping the insides of his knee, on which he has had surgery before, in place.
"I feel lucky," O'Neal said. "You probably won't see me out there anymore without it."
The game against the Bobcats marks a virtual must-win outing for the Raptors, who have disappointed out of the gate with a 6-7 record with three losses in their past four games. Luckily, the Bobcats are 4-9, ahead of only the non-magical Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference. On Nov. 9, the Raptors beat the Bobcats 89-79 in Charlotte.
O'Neal said his knee feels fine and that it's his ankle that has been giving him discomfort. But he contended the injuries are not causing him to lose sleep.
"It's not even a serious concern," O'Neal said. "I think everyone who has not seen me (practise) the past couple of days thinks it is a lot worse but it really is not. As a matter of fact, if the ankle was not sore today, I would have practised for sure."
And just to demonstrate he was not trying to yank the wool over reporters' eyes, O'Neal pulled up the pant leg on his left side.
"I think I should show it," O'Neal said to laughter. "(The knee) looks good. No swelling. The ankle is a little fat right now, a little baby fat on it. It's coming around.
"We're not worried. It's not a situation where we're talking about missing 15 or 20 games. But you don't want to risk the last 50 games for the first 10 games of the season."
If O'Neal sits tonight, Andrea Bargnani likely would be moved to centre and Jamario Moon would be back in as the small forward.
Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is of the mind that a little pain can't hurt, as long as long-term injuries aren't the result. Mitchell doesn't think it's a bad thing for players to be on the court and competing when they are banged up.
"You're not going to feel 100% every game," Mitchell said. "You have to play with some agony. Everybody has it. We did not feel like it could get worse. Chris (Bosh) played last year with banged-up knee and it got the point where he realized what he could do and made adjustments."
Mitchell figured that playing hurt often brings out the best attributes in players.
"You lower expectations on yourself," Mitchell said. "You don't expect as much because you are feeling bad, and you get out there and all of a sudden you are clicking. You know you really have to focus."