From CBS Sportsline: http://www.sportsline.com/nba/story/9926475
Lost among the fallout of the Allen Iverson trade and constant swirl of rumors around a possible deal involving Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal's words of warning almost weren't taken seriously.
A little over a week ago, O'Neal -- clearly frustrated after his Indiana Pacers battled the red-hot Dallas Mavericks to the stretch before losing -- gave his take on the state of the team he has carried for most of the decade.
Tired of doing the Eastern Conference shuffle -- win one, lose two, win two, lose one -- O'Neal suggested the Pacers trade him in the offseason.
"If I can't take this team to another level, I truthfully believe we should go our separate ways at the end of the season," O'Neal told the Indianapolis Star. "I'm saying in general, the bottom line is you play to win. If we don't have a system set to win a championship, if we don't have the crew to win a championship, then what are we doing?" It has been easy to see why O'Neal is frustrated. Two wins away from the NBA Finals in 2004, the Pacers have not been close since. In fact, they are going backward, losing in the conference semifinals in 2005 and in the first round last year.
This season began with a similar pattern. The Pacers could not get untracked, winning no more than two in a row and losing no more than three in a row in the first two months of the season.
"We'll play extremely well one night, then come back the next game and play extremely bad," O'Neal said.
After the loss in Dallas, Indiana was 17-16, good enough to feel secure about returning to the postseason for the 10th straight year but not good enough for O'Neal. The franchise player decided he was going to do something about it.
O'Neal personally authorized Indiana's first three-game winning streak of the season, taking over down the stretch of wins over New Orleans and Boston -- two clubs that had beaten the Pacers earlier this season.
To do that, however, O'Neal needed the ball, which he felt like was not coming to him enough for the team to be successful.
"It's a very difficult situation because we have guys that can make shots, but at times when we are struggling and losing, I do want the ball in my hands," O'Neal said. "I have a lot of confidence in my teammates, but in a tough situation I want the ball in my hands. In any given matchup, I feel I can make plays. Even when I'm double-teamed, I can find the open guy to score for us." That premise isn't exactly the game plan of Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who wants to play through O'Neal to make his teammates more effective.
"We are not going to go out of our way to give Jermaine the ball 25-30 times a game but we can be creative and find ways to get him more involved," Carlisle said. "We have a lot of guys that can score for us, but we have to find a way to keep everyone involved." O'Neal's way has worked better of late. In the fourth quarter of the win at New Orleans, he scored nine points in just over seven minutes, including a pair of lefthanded layups as he demoralized defensive demon Tyson Chandler.
In the final period of Tuesday's win at Boston, the Celtics had cut an 18-point deficit to 84-80 when O'Neal came off the bench and took over the game the way few NBA players can.
On consecutive trips, he passed out of a double-team for a 3-pointer, grabbed a defensive rebound, drove for a three-point play and blocked a driving layup. Two trips later, he drained an elbow jumper, singlehandedly rebuilding the lead to double digits in less than three minutes.
O'Neal often is forgotten when discussing the NBA's best players. Maybe it is because as an 11-year veteran with a lot of mileage on him, he is viewed as a player on the downswing.
However, O'Neal is just 28 years old and appears to have plenty in his tank, as his league-leading 3.16 blocks attest. He is averaging his customary 19.2 points and 10.5 rebounds. His 3.0 assists are a career-best. Dwight Howard is the only player in the East with more double-doubles.
"Jermaine is a great player, and the thing I always tell him is not to underestimate how much better he can make his teammates," Carlisle said. "Not only with his abilities on the court, but he has a leadership quality that makes him unique and a special player." Despite spending two-plus months doing the Eastern Conference shuffle, the Pacers are only four games behind Cleveland for first place in the Central Division and the top seed. The next two months offer a golden opportunity to put some wins together and make a move.
After a rematch Friday with Dallas and visits to New Jersey and Miami, Indiana plays 14 of its next 17 games at home, with short trips to Detroit, Memphis and Toronto. It is not unlikely that the Pacers could enter March with a 34-20 mark, which makes them the '72 Lakers in the woeful East.
O'Neal is happy about the winning streak but expects more of himself and his team.
"I think it was a great sign, but we still have a lot of work to do to establish ourself as a competitive team," he said.
If the Pacers want to hold onto their franchise player, they should feel the same way.