O’Neal Returns, Sparks Pacers Past Bulls
Indiana 95, Chicago 85
INDIANAPOLIS, March 22 (Ticker) -- The Indiana Pacers had a different look with Jermaine O'Neal back in the lineup.
Playing for the first time in nearly two months due to a groin injury, O'Neal scored 16 points as the Pacers overcame a sloppy start in a 95-85 victory over the struggling Chicago Bulls.
"Having Jermaine back gave us a spiritual lift," Pacer coach Rick Carlisle said. "He played well, considering he's been out for two months. We knew he was getting closer to playing. It's essential we have time to get him re-integrated with the team and get through this adjustment period before the postseason begins."
O'Neal came off the bench Wednesday, entering the game at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter and draining a jumper 24 seconds later.
"I think it went pretty good," O'Neal said. "This is the style I like to play. I prefer to play up and down and that's something that this team needs to be able to do. I think this is plenty of time for me (to get adjusted to the offense). It's not really about me getting my rhythm ... it's about me and my teammates getting our rhythm together."
Active in the low post on both ends, O'Neal played 25 minutes and made 5-of-13 shots but just 6-of-12 free throws while also grabbing six rebounds.
"I'm always pretty critical of myself," O'Neal said. "I didn't want to raise the bar too high, because I've been out seven or eight weeks."
Stephen Jackson scored 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter for Indiana (34-32), which tied idle Washington for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
"I know it (O'Neal's return) was big for me," Jackson said. "Having him back was definitely big. He opens up the floor, so it's hard for the other team to double. It's harder for guys to step out on me and it's harder for big guys to come and help when I drive, because they're too worried about him down low. It really opens up the offense for everybody."
Jackson was the ringleader in the final period, when the Pacers took advantage of some cold shooting by the Bulls and used a 12-0 run to take control of the game.
"I wanted to pick up the pace and be more physical," Jackson said. "I wanted to generate some energy, because the guys feed off of me sometimes."
"Big guards have been tough matchups for us all year," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. We have Kirk (Hinrich) playing those guys most of the time, and Kirk does a good job on them, but it can take its toll. That's a concern of ours almost every game."
Chris Duhon's steal and layup gave the Bulls a 72-67 lead 23 seconds into the fourth quarter. But the Bulls missed 15 of their next 16 shots and went just 5-of-22 overall in the final quarter.
"When we went up, we couldn't stay up," Chicago forward Luol Deng said. "We started making silly mistakes and let them back in the game. We struggled making shots in the fourth quarter and when they got the lead, they didn't look back."
Jackson triggered the decisive surge with a 3-pointer, then converted a driving layup with 9:35 left to tie the game at 72-72. Oft-injured point guard Jamaal Tinsley's three-point play with 8:19 to go gave the Pacers the lead for good.
Andres Nocioni had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Hinrich scored 14 points for fading Chicago (29-39), which has lost four straight to slip 3 1/2 games behind Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
"They were coming off a big loss and we had them on the ropes early," Hinrich said. "(Letting teams back in games) has been our M.O. all season. We have got to start believing in ourselves."
Despite O'Neal's return, the Pacers were sloppy early and trailed, 27-14, after the first quarter. They narrowed the deficit to 48-41 at the break.
"In the first half, I didn't feel too tired ... just rusty," O'Neal said. "I was a little fatigued in the second, but I found some rhythm. I started to feel a little bit like I was picking up where I left off."