Doubt this will satisfy our most ardent anti-Johnson faction
Sharpening Edge, Regaining Health Key Issues
By Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, April 5, 2004
Though the Pacers have the top spot in the Eastern Conference locked up, they can not afford to go on cruise control for the final two weeks of the regular season. They have health and personnel issues to address, not to mention the not-so-small goal of regaining a sharp edge before the playoffs begin.
The critical issues:
Jermaine O’Neal: His sore left knee has become problematic in that it robs him of jumping ability, and that’s the leg he uses for takeoff. How that affects his overall game, and his minutes in the remaining regular-season games, remains to be seen.
Point guard: Jamaal Tinsley returned to practice Monday and is expected to start Tuesday against New York in Conseco Fieldhouse. Though that’s good news, his return will have a ripple effect on Kenny Anderson, who was effective in Tinsley’s absence, and Anthony Johnson.
Jonathan Bender: Though the key reserve is eligible to be activated from the injured list, he remains apprehensive about re-injuring the left shoulder and isn’t likely to be cleared to return at least until Friday.
Sharpening the edge: The Pacers have lost three of their last four games against teams with winning records, including Sunday’s embarrassing drubbing in Detroit. For a team that wants to be at its peak entering the postseason, clearly there is some climbing to do.
O’Neal did not score from the low post in Detroit on Sunday, settling almost exclusively for mid-range jumpers and going 4 of 15 from the field. Though he had been on a 24-minute limit for the previous two games to limit wear and tear on his knee, he played 37 against the Pistons and said he isn’t comfortable playing shorter stints.
"I've got to play,” O’Neal said. “It's such a crucial time for me to lose my rhythm. Rhythm is sometimes hard to get, especially when you play teams like Boston and Detroit that like to mix it up on defense and make you play a different way. If you don't have a rhythm, then you're really not effective in the games. I'm going to have to find times when I can rest a lot during contact during practice and play in the games. It's a hard thing because you want to obviously get practice time, but it's either me playing well in the games or playing hard in practice and not playing well in the games."
O’Neal also wants to move his game back inside, to use the jumper as a complementary rather than a primary weapon.
“Some nights, you rely on jump shots but I guess it takes a game like (Sunday) to put that in perspective,” he said. “If I’m out there, I’ve got to give what I can give. I can’t settle for a jump shot. If I’m making them, it’s great. If I’m missing them, I’m killing the team. They went to me an awful lot and I didn’t come through for the team. In big games, if you’re going to a big-time player in this league, you’ve got to be able to come through no matter what.”
The Pacers went 2-2 in the games Tinsley missed with a viral sinus infection. Getting their starting point guard back into the flow, both from a conditioning and rhythm standpoint, is critical.
"I'm feeling a little weak right now, but I'm going to go out there and play through it,” Tinsley said. “Most of me getting back is just getting out there and getting into the flow of it. I'm not 100 percent right now, but I've just got to get out there and play basketball."
Anderson, who played sparingly before Tinsley’s illness, averaged 9.5 points and 4.0 assists in the last four games, starting three. Coach Rick Carlisle said he’d like to find a way to use the veteran more regularly as the playoffs approach.
[size=18:3560e2c5dd]“I’ve talked to both Kenny and A.J. and I haven’t made a final decision but my feeling is that we could go into a situation similar to what has happened with (Austin) Croshere and (Scot) Pollard, where maybe one guy will play one night based on matchups or something of that nature,” Carlisle said. “Certainly, they’re both fine players and both deserving to play and they both bring something a little different to our team. I really feel like an important part of my job right now is keeping both of them ready to play on the one hand and, on the other hand, keeping our team in position to win. Really, I have such confidence in both guys, I don’t think it matters who plays as the backup.” [/size]
Bender, still wearing protective padding on his left shoulder, has regained full range of motion and has returned to practice. But he said the shoulder is tender enough that another hit could lead to a major setback that could force him to sit out an extended period of time in the playoffs, and he doesn’t want to come back until he’s confident the risk of re-injury is minimal.
“I was ready to go the other day but the doctor told me it would be stupid to go out there right and get hit and have to miss the playoffs,” Bender said. “I’m just trying to get it comfortable enough where I can go out there and play and get hit and go through the bumps.
“It’s kind of hard going out there watching my team and not being able to play, but we’ve got a big thing coming up that I’ve got to be in. I’ve just got to be patient, take my time and get it all the way healthy.”
Carlisle must balance being protective of his injured players with the need to have the team fully prepared for the playoffs. The Pacers will open their first-round series either April 17 or 18. The regular-season ends April 14.
”We’re going to have to use these next eight-to-10 days to keep an edge, especially at the defensive end, and to get better at both ends,” Carlisle said. “Our injury situation and our health situation isn’t perfect right now but I think our medical people are doing the best they can to help us with it and the players are doing their part. They’re getting their treatments and doing what they can to get better. That’s all we can ask for at this point.”