O'Neal returns tonight but won't start.
By Mark Montieth
Posted: March 31, 2008
Jermaine O'Neal's return to the Indiana Pacers' lineup isn't just the start of a nine-game sprint to the season's finish line.
It's the birth of what he views as a new phase in his NBA career, one he hopes is more productive and less painful than the past few seasons.
O'Neal promises to be in the lineup tonight when the Pacers play Miami at Conseco Fieldhouse, making his first appearance since he played nine scoreless minutes against Golden State on Jan. 16.
He has spent the past 21/2 months resting and rehabbing the left knee that was surgically repaired following last season. After two weeks of practice, he's ready to jump back in and see what he can contribute to a playoff run.
He won't start, and he doesn't expect to play more than 20 minutes per game for awhile. His offensive skills are corroded, too.
But he should be able to tend to his teammates' greatest need, which obviously and alarmingly is their porous defense. The Pacers are allowing 106.1 points per game, most since the 1992-93 season. If they are to overcome Atlanta's three-game lead for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, they'll no doubt have to do it by allowing fewer points.
Enter O'Neal, the franchise's career leader in blocked shots and one of the NBA's best at taking charges.
"I haven't lost my defensive rhythm," he said. "Offensively it's going to take me a couple of games to get myself together, but we don't need me as much offensively now.
"If we play better defensively we can get in. I think I'll fit right in."
Coach Jim O'Brien doesn't plan to ignore O'Neal on offense, however. Although the Pacers have gotten along without O'Neal offensively -- some would say better, because of the improved ball movement -- O'Brien longs for a low-post presence.
If opponents continue to honor the Pacers' 3-point shooters, O'Neal should be able to score one-on-one around the basket. If opponents pay special attention to O'Neal, the Pacers' 3-point shooters, who rank seventh in league accuracy, should have more open looks.
Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, O'Neal has committed to spending the summer in Las Vegas to participate in the Abunassar Impact Basketball academy.
Joe Abunassar, a former student manager at Indiana University, has developed a popular offseason training program and facility that attracts about 40 NBA players each summer. Alums include Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Al Harrington, Baron Davis and Monta Ellis.
O'Neal says he will move to his Las Vegas home one week after the season ends to begin reworking his body and game.
If he can get through the end of this season without injury, it will mark the first time in at least five years that he hasn't entered the offseason needing extensive rest or rehabilitation. He plans to take advantage.
"Joe's putting together a plan that I'm really excited about," O'Neal said.
"It gives me an opportunity to develop my body . . . and understand why certain parts are breaking down."
Ike Diogu also plans to participate, having accepted O'Neal's offer to live at his Vegas home this summer.
For O'Neal, the summer and the remaining games of this season represent an opportunity to reclaim his status as a six-time All-Star.
"I don't feel I have to prove anything to my doubters. I feel I need to prove it to myself," he said. "That I can get back and dominate once again. At 29, I'm not ready to give that up.
"I'm going to get some things off my chest (on the court) next season, but it's going to start with me in the summertime."