O'Neal Hopes to Lead Pacers Back From the Brink

by Conrad Brunner

May 1, 2003







6th Man
"If we don't go out and put together a total game like last night, we go home for the summer. If somebody in the locker room doesn't believe that, then something is seriously wrong with them. In order for us to beat Boston in Boston, it's going to have to be a damn-near flawless game. We have to be almost perfect because those guys are extremely, extremely tough to beat."

- Jermaine O'Neal

No. 3 PACERS (2-3) at. No. 6 BOSTON (3-2)
Thursday, May 1, 2003
6 p.m., FleetCenter
TV: WB4 (local), TBS (national) RADIO: WIBC-1070 AM

By Conrad Brunner

While Boston's Paul Pierce has grabbed the headlines and become the single most influential player in the series because of three dominant quarters, Jermaine O'Neal has quietly gone about the business of becoming a quietly consistent, but no less dominant, inside player for the Pacers.

Consider: since the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams, only two players have managed to average at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a single postseason - Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett. Jermaine O'Neal, averaging 22.4 points and 17.2 rebounds, almost certainly will join them.

Yet, because the Pacers trail 3-2 entering Game 6 tonight in Boston -- where they've lost six in a row - O'Neal has taken little joy in his individual production. He relates more to fellow South Carolina native Garnett, whose Timberwolves have never made it out out of the first round, than to the Lakers' three-time champion.

"I'm a win-loss guy," O'Neal said. "I feel like I haven't excelled to my best ability until my team is able to excel out of the first round. I'm sure Kevin has to be thinking the same thing and he's more than likely the MVP of this league. You can't really sit back and say, 'My numbers are great' if you're team isn't getting out of the first round. Then, you become selfish. Until my team is considered the best, until we excel and get out of the first round, then I can't even think about what I'm doing because what I'm doing ain't enough."

Regardless of tonight's result, O'Neal has taken yet another pronounced step forward in his development in this series. In his first playoff experience as a starter, he was overpowered by Philadelphia's Dikembe Mutombo in 2001. Last year, he scored 30 points in a Game 1 victory against the Nets, then averaged just 14.0 points on 44.7 percent shooting the rest of the way.

This year, he has been a rock in the middle throughout. Twice in the last four games, he has set franchise single-game records for rebounds with 20 in Game 2, then 22 in Game 5. You want consistency? He has taken between 14 and 16 shots and scored between 19 and 25 points in every game of the series.

“Unbelievable," said Reggie Miller. "From last year to this year, even from the Philadelphia series two years ago, his game has obviously improved. I think the All-Star nods have shown that. His leadership and his toughness, his willingness to sacrifice his body for the betterment of the team is the reason why we won 48 games this year. He played a lot of games hurt, when he really didn’t have to, where a lot of guys probably would have taken the night off. Shows a lot of sacrifice and dedication that he’s put in during the offseason. Obviously he hasn’t gotten a lot of rest during the offseason the last few years because he’s been playing a lot of USA Basketball and that’s going to continue this summer, but he’s young, he’s hungry and he just wants to win."

O'Neal, who made bold pronouncements about the Nets' inability to defend him after Game 1 last year, has taken a much more low-key approach this time around.

"You've got to be focused and you've got to want more from your career," he said. "That's the biggest thing I've learned, especially from last year in the playoffs - don't really say too much, just let your game take care of itself."

The Pacers gained confidence from their Game 5 victory and perhaps planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the Celtics. But O'Neal fully realizes the predicament still facing the team.

"Our backs are still against the wall," he said. "I don't think anyone in that locker room should feel comfortable because if we lose, it's over. It won't matter what we did (in Game 5). But I think it put a little more pressure on Boston to try to finish it out in Boston. Pretty much the pressure is still on us. We either win or we go home. That's the bottom line right now."

Pacers - Ron Artest had 26 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots in Game 5 and has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 steals in the series. ... Jeff Foster had 22 minutes, eight points and six rebounds in Game 5 after totaling eight minutes in the first four games. ... Tim Hardaway played 27 minutes, producing 13 points and six assists Tuesday night. ... Ron Mercer has averaged 12.3 points in the last three games. ... Jermaine O'Neal set a franchise playoff record with 22 rebounds and 19 defensive rebounds in Game 5. In the last four games, he has averaged 19.3 rebounds. For the series, his averages are 22.4 points, 17.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots.

Celtics - Paul Pierce leads the team in scoring (25.6), rebounding (9.4) and assists (6.4). ... Antoine Walker is averaging 19.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals while shooting 45.8 percent from the arc (11 of 24). ... Tony Delk has averaged 18.0 points while shooting 50 percent (8 of 16) from the arc in the last three. ... Walter McCarty has averaged 14.0 points on 48.8 percent shooting (21 of 43) in the last four.

Pacers - The team has been outscored 102-58 in the third quarter of the last four games while going 15 of 62 from the field (24.2 percent). ... Al Harrington is averaging 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 6-of-25 from the field (.240). He has picked up 18 personal fouls, one per every 4.5 minutes played. ... Brad Miller did not score in 10 minutes in Game 5. ... Reggie Miller has averaged 5.3 points on 20 percent shooting in the last three games. For the series, he's averaging 9.4 points on 28.9 percent shooting overall (13 of 45) and 15.8 percent from the arc (3 of 19). ... Jamaal Tinsley had two points and two assists Tuesday night.

Celtics - Pierce is shooting just 35.9 percent from the field for the series and has actually shot a lower percentage inside the arc (.348) than beyond it (.391). ... Eric Williams has averaged 6.5 points on 25.8 percent shooting (8 of 31) in the last four games. ... Tony Battie has totaled 31 minutes, eight points, nine rebounds and 10 fouls in the last two. ... J.R. Bremer has averaged 4.6 points on 30.8 percent shooting overall (8 of 26) and 21.4 percent from the arc (3 of 14).

Paul Pierce - Pierce has averaged 32.7 points, 15.7 free-throw attempts and 43.4 percent shooting in three Boston victories. In two defeats, his averages are 15.0 points, 5.5 free-throw attempts and 25.6 percent shooting. Pierce also has scored nearly half his points (56) in three big quarters. In the other 17 quarters of the series, he has averaged 4.2 points while shooting 26 percent (19 of 73). Putting a cap on his eruptions and keeping him away from the free-throw line are critical to the continuance of the Pacers' season.

Pacers - None.

Celtics - None.