By John Clayton
Indianapolis, October 16, 2003
Jermaine O’Neal will miss at least the next two preseason games – at home tonight against Minnesota and Saturday night against Boston at Manchester, NH – due to a back injury.
Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said O’Neal will definitely be out of action this weekend – maybe longer.
“Our concern at this point is his welfare and how the back is feeling,” said Carlisle. “We’ve got to make sure his back is feeling right and his body is strong and we’ll go from there.”
With the remainder of his preseason in doubt, O'Neal is already starting to place his focus on getting ready for the regular season, which begins for the Pacers on Oct. 29 in Detroit.
"I'm going to sit out until I feel 100 percent," O'Neal said. "The preseason really isn't my concern anymore. I want to do everything I can to get ready for the regular season."
O’Neal is one of six Pacers players who missed Wednesday night’s 100-93 loss to Denver due to assorted injuries. He is to be examined by noted sports physician Dan Dyrek Saturday in New Hampshire.
O'Neal said his back had started to bother him over the summer even prior to his collision with Gill, getting progressivly worse as time wore on. In addition to a rugged NBA schedule, O'Neal has played in international competition for USA Basketball in each of the past three offseasons, something that has been a source of concern for the Pacers. Still, O'Neal believes he can be ready for the regular season.
"I'm definitely hoping so," he said. "It makes me nervous a little bit to be 25 and talking about my back."
Carlisle, who watched former teammate and current Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird struggle with back injuries during his career, understands well how serious it can become.
“Any time you’re talking about a back injury with a basketball player, you’re talking about a potentially dangerous situation,” said Carlisle. “We’re going to err toward caution on this and we’re going to make sure everything is right before we put him back out there on the court.”
O’Neal joins Kenny Anderson (hamstring), Al Harrington (shin contusion), Austin Croshere (hamstring), Jonathan Bender (knee), and Anthony Johnson (broken finger) among the Pacers’ injured. Anderson and Harrington are questionable for Friday night’s 7 o’clock tip-off against Minnesota at Conseco Fieldhouse.
“We’ve got 12 available, so we need everybody right now,” said Carlisle.
But the injuries have also provided a serious challenge to that same staff, which has been given the task of quickly installing new offensive and defensive schemes in a relatively short time frame since Carlisle’s hiring in September.
“Most likely some cuts would have probably been made, but due to our situation it’s been impossible to even consider cutting anybody. But all these guys are capable players,” said Carlisle. “All these guys have NBA-caliber ability, but it’s just that it’s a game of numbers, so at some point, we’re going to have to cut down a little bit.”
With six players out with injuries against Denver, all Carlisle could do is hope for the best – and for a miracle cure to the assortment of injuries that include O'Neal’s bruised back, Croshere’s hamstring, Johnson’s broken finger and Bender’s surgically-repaired knee.
Anderson (hamstring) is expected back soon as is Harrington, but the entire team will be checked out this weekend by noted physical therapist Dan Dyrek when the team visits the Celtics in Manchester, NH.
Until then, Carlisle will continue to work with the remaining healthy players – in practice and in games.
“It makes it tougher in terms of being able to put new things in. Fortunately, for us, because of the schedule, we’re still on track with what we were going to add in offensively and defensively,” said Carlisle. “We weren’t going to add much this week because of our games. Hopefully, we’ll be getting people back by the time early next week rolls around and that’s going to be an important time for us. We’re going to be putting in a few new things and we’re going to have to brush up on the things we need a little work on.”
Some surprising names continue to figure heavily in Carlisle’s preseason rotation. Rookies James Jones and Carl English as well as NBDL import Omar Cook continue to get valuable minutes.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity for guys who have been fighting it out to keep going in this thing,” said Carlisle. “I’ve certainly loved everyone’s effort – guys like Carl English and Mike Smith and Omar Cook and James Jones. Those guys have had a great camp and I think they understand that this is a unique opportunity not only to make our team, but to make an impression on other teams that are watching because there are a lot of teams sniffing around right now.”
Against Denver, Carlisle went with a scrappy starting front line of Jeff Foster at power forward and Primoz Brezec at center, who combined for 12 points and 20 rebounds.
“We need to have both those guys (O’Neal and Harrington) to be as good as we can be,” said Carlisle. “We also need to be healthy, so we’ve got to be sure we’re doing everything we can to get these guys feeling right and still work them into some game action before we step into the regular season.”
In the absence of O’Neal and Harrington, the Pacers’ main offensive threats on the low post, the team shot just 39.7 percent (27 of 68) from the field and, playing from behind for most of the game, attempted 20 3-pointers, hitting just seven.
“You never want to be a perimeter team,” said guard Reggie Miller. “You always want to have a presence down low. It just makes the game easier. Without (O’Neal), it makes that somewhat tougher.”
Troubles at the Free-Throw Line Continue
The Pacers’ middling free-throw statistics against Denver turned out to be a microcosm of the preseason.
Indiana attempted nearly twice as many free throws as the Nuggets, but hit only about two-thirds of them (32 of 48). Denver hit 21 of 28 – 20 fewer attempts than the Pacers - free throws (75 percent).
“We’re averaging about a plus-8 or plus-9 (free throws attempted) a game, so that’s a real positive sign, but the next step is to make more. To be a real good free-throw shooting team, you’ve got to hit in the high 70s. Right now, we’re in the sixties somewhere.”
Against Denver, Brezec hit only 1 of 6 free throws and Scot Pollard, coming off the bench for the first time this preseason, hit 7 of 12.
For the preseason, the Pacers have hit 67.5 percent (127 of 188) of their free-throw attempts. They lead the league in trips to the line.
“Free throws were the difference,” said Ron Artest, who hit 13 of 17 free throws against Denver. “That’s 16 points.”
Reggie Remains on Comeback Trail
Reggie Miller’s surgically-repaired right ankle is still occasionally bothersome, but the veteran guard said he won’t use the injury as an excuse this upcoming season.
“It comes and goes, but I don’t want to use that this year,” Miller said. “If I don’t get the job done, it’s me not getting the job done.”
Still, Miller, who injured the ankle in the 2002 World Basketball Championships, said he is satisfied with his overall progress since undergoing offseason surgery.
“There are a lot of things I still need to work on,” he said. “I feel like my conditioning is still not all the way there. Just starting Sept. 1 kind of put me behind the curve a little bit.”
Retro Jerseys to Honor ’73 ABA Champs
Miller has memories of the last time the Pacers went retro.
“Denver came in here and smoked us,” he recalled.
That was March 31, 1995 and a struggling Nuggets team came into Market Square Arena, snapping a five-game Pacers win streak with a 107-92 victory.
After that debacle, Pacers President Donnie Walsh vowed to never return to retro uniforms – until now.
The Pacers will wear the blue and gold-trimmed 1973 retro uniforms at least six times this season, debuting them on Thanksgiving Day against the New York Knicks. Retro jerseys featuring current players will go on sale in the Pacers Gift Shop that day to go along with the George McGinnis No. 30 already on sale there.
Other retro dates are set for Dec. 12 (Atlanta), Jan. 28 (Phoenix) and March 24 (Dallas). On the road, the Pacers will wear white retro uniforms on Feb. 10 (at Chicago) and March 26 (at Orlando). A seventh game is being considered Jan. 19 at Atlanta.