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By John Clayton
Indianapolis, Feb. 1, 2004 The Los Angeles Lakers got their O’Neal – in the 7-foot-1, 340-pound form of Shaquille - back just in time for Monday night’s visit to Conseco Fieldhouse, but the Pacers will probably be without theirs. Jermaine O’Neal is listed as doubtful for the game with a neck injury he sustained early on in the Pacers’ 99-98 victory over Boston Saturday night. O’Neal was struck hard on the neck by what appeared to be an inadvertent elbow from Cetics center Mark Blount. No foul was called.
The diagnosis, according to Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle, is strained vertebrae in the neck. O'Neal was walking gingerly after Sunday's practice and wearing a large neck brace. He did not participate in the light practice session, but did receive treatment for the injury.
“I’m doubtful, and that’s all I’m going to say,” O'Neal said.
O’Neal played only 12 minutes against Boston, scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds. The Pacers were able to finish off the Celtics without O’Neal for most of the game, due in no small part to Al Harrington’s season-high 27 points off the bench. But facing Shaquille O’Neal and a Lakers team, even without Kobe Bryant (finger laceration) and Karl Malone (knee), will be a tough task if the Pacers’ All-Star forward is forced to sit out. O’Neal leads the Pacers in scoring (20.4 ppg), rebounding (10.4 rpg) and blocked shots (2.72 bpg).
“It certainly makes it tougher, but Jermaine is doubtful at this point,” said Carlisle. “Al will go into the starting position (at power forward) if Jermaine doesn’t play and (Austin) Croshere will move into one of the backup spots in the rotation and we’re going to have to play a great game with high energy. We’re going to have to be aggressive and take care of the ball. . . . We’re going to have to make plays and hit shots.”
It would appear to be a good time for Harrington to make his fifth start of the season. Harrington has scored 21 points or higher in each of his last three games, averaging 24.0 points and 6.3 rebounds over that span.
“I’ve got to probably be a little bit more aggressive,” said Harrington. “With Jermaine not in there, I’ll have to pick up a little more of the scoring load. But for the most part, as a team, we’re very, very deep and it’s going to take a total team effort to win the game.”
Shaquille O'Neal had been out of the Lakers' lineup for nearly all of January with a right calf strain, but returned in a win over Seattle on Jan. 28 and turned in arguably his best performance of the season Sunday in an 84-83 victory at Toronto. He scored a season-high 36 points on 13 of 20 shooting and 10 of 15 free throws. While Shaq is back, the Lakers do have injury problems of their own. In the absences of Bryant and Malone, Kareem Rush will start at shooting guard and Stanislav Medvedenko at power forward.
The Pacers did not play well in the last meeting between the two teams on Nov. 30, a 99-77 Lakers victory at Staples Center. Indiana coupled 21 turnovers with only 10 assists, a season-low for a Lakers' opponent, and shot just 39 percent from the field.
"We were 14-2 at the time and we came on a team that was really playing at a different level than anybody else we had played," said Carlisle. "The Lakers were really clicking at that time. . . . Obviously, we're going to have to do a lot better."
Most teams feel they have something to prove when they meet the Lakers. Despite having more wins (35) than any team in the NBA to this point, the Pacers are no different and still feel the sting of the earlier loss to the Lakers.
"They won three (NBA Championships) in a row, so you always look at them as the champs," said Harrington. "They have Shaquille over there and it seems like nobody ever has an answer for him, so you always look at them and give them respect every time you see them. . . . You're going to get up to play those guys. . . . I feel like we owe them one. We came out to L.A. and they beat us down."
Harrington has scored 21 points or more in each of his last three games, averaging 24 points and 6.3 rebounds during that stretch. His 27 points against Boston Saturday was a season high. . . Austin Croshere scored nine points in 13 minutes against Boston. All his points came on three key 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
Jamaal Tinsley is 2 of 12 (16.7 percent) from 3-point range in his last five games. He had 10 assists against Boston, but coupled them with five turnovers. . . .Ron Artest scored only six points on 2 of 9 shooting in the Pacers' earlier loss to the Lakers.
Frontcourt - With Jermaine O'Neal out of the picture, the onus of stopping Shaquille O'Neal falls to Jeff Foster and Scot Pollard. While J.O. probably wouldn't be defending Shaq one-on-one during the game, his absence certainly compromises the Pacers' help defense on the low post. Shaq picked up three first-quarter fouls the last time these two teams met, but returned to score 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half.
Pacers - F James Jones (L gastroc strain), F Jonathan Bender (chronic knee soreness) and G Jamison Brewer (R big toe sprain) are on the injured list. Ron Artest (L thumb sprain) is probable. F Jermaine O'Neal (neck strain) is doubtful.
Lakers - F Karl Malone (sprained R knee medial collateral ligament) and F Brian Cook (R pinkie finger fracture) are on the injured list. G Kobe Bryant (R index finger laceration) is out. F Jamal Sampson (R ankle sprain) is doubtful.
So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.
If you've done 6 impossible things today?
Then why not have Breakfast at Milliways!