Indiana 100, New Orleans/Okla. City 93

OKLAHOMA CITY, Jan. 5 (AP) -- The Indiana Pacers are still a long way from where Jermaine O'Neal wants them to go. At least they are headed in the right direction.

O'Neal was a big part of it, making two key layups to help the Pacers to a 100-93 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday night in his first game since issuing a challenge to his Indiana teammates.

O'Neal finished with 22 points, two nights after calling the Pacers "a very average team'' and suggesting that he and the team should go "separate ways'' at the end of the season "if I can't take this team to another level.''

O'Neal said he didn't want the Pacers to "mingle around .500'' and then make an early exit from the playoffs. This win snapped a two-game losing streak and kept the Pacers above .500 at 18-16.

"It's too early,'' O'Neal said. "We've had situations where we've looked extremely good and then we come back the next night and we look extremely bad. It's too early to say we're making huge steps. It was a baby step.''

O'Neal hit back-to-back layups from the left block to break away from an 83-all tie and spark a 10-3 run that gave the Pacers control of the game in the final 4 minutes.

"We have guys that can score, but at times when we are struggling scoring, I do want the ball. That is a fact,'' O'Neal said. "But I have a lot of confidence in my teammates to be able to make plays.''

The Hornets played from behind most of the night and had tied the game at 83 on Desmond Mason's hook shot in the lane.

O'Neal followed with his two layups before Rasual Butler got New Orleans back within 87-85 by turning a steal into a right-handed runout dunk. Jeff Foster answered that with two free throws for Indiana and Jamaal Tinsley hit consecutive jumpers to put the game out of reach.

"The key for us tonight was timely playmaking and shots by our main guys,'' Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.

Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson each scored 27 points and Tinsley added 13 for the Pacers, who have never been more than two games above or below .500 this season.

"We just need to put some wins (together) and finally get at least a three-game winning streak together to be considered making strides,'' O'Neal said.

Mason finished with 28 points - his most since being acquired by the Hornets in a trade last preseason - to lead six Hornets in double figures. Jannero Pargo scored 14 points, Marc Jackson and Devin Brown each added 11 and Butler and Tyson Chandler had 10 apiece.

The Hornets, who are without starters Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic and David West, have lost 18 of 22.

"It was obvious how badly we needed to win,'' Carlisle said. "New Orleans threw the kitchen sink at us. They played a great game considering the circumstances. There were opportunities for us to fold, and we just didn't do it.''

The Pacers opened the game on a 10-1 run, but allowed the Hornets to even the game at 25 after a run of seven straight points.

O'Neal scored the next seven points to put Indiana back on top, and the Pacers didn't trail until early in the second half. Once they did, Tinsley hit a pair of 3-pointers as Indiana answered Mason's three-point play with a 10-0 run to take a 67-60 lead late in the third quarter.

The Hornets closed within 71-70 on another three-point play by Mason and Linton Johnson's buzzer-beating 3-pointer to close the third quarter.

Hornets coach Byron Scott, who questioned whether his team had quit on the season after a 92-68 loss to Detroit on Thursday, thought his team was more aggressive against Indiana.

"I had no complaint on our effort,'' Scott said. "I thought that we played hard. There were little things that we didn't do that we have talked about all year long. ... We do not have the manpower to make those kinds of mistakes.''

Notes: O'Neal was indignant after the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated from the NFC playoffs on a botched field-goal hold by Tony Romo. O'Neal was watching on a television in a hallway outside the Pacers' locker room when Romo misplaced the hold to seal Seattle's 21-20 win. ... Brown started at point guard in place of Pargo, who'd made six straight starts in place of Paul and Bobby Jackson (cracked left rib). "Devin has that experience. The one thing about Devin that I know is that he's not going to turn the ball over. He's going to take good shots,'' Scott said. ... Jackson, who missed 16 games with the rib injury before playing 10 minutes against Detroit on Thursday, said he was too sore to play again and considered himself "day to day.'' ... The Pacers avoided their third three-game losing streak this season.

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