O’Neal Hurting, but Artest Getting Closer to Return

by Conrad Brunner

March 1, 2004

Ron Artest will join the Pacers on their final extended road jaunt of the regular season, four games against Western Conference opponents beginning Tuesday night at Golden State, and it may turn out to be a business trip for the All-Star forward.

Jermaine O’Neal suggested Artest might actually return to the court this week. Artest has been out since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb on Feb. 19. He’s been on the injured list five games and is thus eligible for activation when medical clearance is given.

“I think we may have Ron back this week,” O’Neal said after practice Monday at Conseco Fieldhouse. “That’ll be good for us.”

Artest had a doctor’s appointment to examine the thumb, and possibly remove the hard cast. He did not attend practice.

“He’s been shooting, and I think he comes out of his cast pretty soon, if not today,” O’Neal said. “Talking to him, he’s really in a hurry to get back and he feels like he’s going to come back. He’s a guy that did 10 push-ups after he had heart surgery (to repair a minor problem during the 2002 offseason). If he can do that, I’m pretty sure he’s going to try to get back.

“He understands we can win without him, but we need him to excel, especially for the stretch run of the season. If we’re going to contend, we’re going to need all of these guys. We can’t have anybody hurt because they’re important to what we do.”

Carlisle said he hadn’t heard anything specific about Artest returning. Asked if the forward was getting close to coming back, he replied, “He might be.”

“It depends on what the doctor says,” Carlisle said. “But I haven’t heard any word on anything, so I don’t know.”

There is another health issue to monitor, and it involves O'Neal, whose right knee has suffered a recurrence of tendinitis. So far, it has only limited his practice time, but is a situation that will bear watching.

“My knee is really struggling a lot when I play back-to-back games and play a lot of minutes,” O’Neal said. “I had (Sunday) off and coach Carlisle gave me today off so I could get some rest and treatment. I definitely want to be able to play these next two games. Then there’s a day off after that. And as long as I can put some days between games, I think I can get through the season.

“The afternoon of the Sixers game (Saturday night), I thought I may not be able to play. It’s going to be a while before it gets better. But if I keep getting it treated and we put some space on the second-place team, in the last week or two I can sit out and get some rest for the playoffs. The playoffs start three days after the last regular-season game, so I don’t have much time to rest.”

After playing Golden State on Tuesday night, the Pacers face the Clippers on Wednesday. After a day off, they travel to Utah for a Friday night game, then wrap up the trip Sunday night in Denver. After returning home to face Toronto next Tuesday night, they hit the road to face Boston (March 12) and Cleveland (March 14). Then comes the season-closing stretch in which 10 of the final 16 games will be at home.