O'Neal in 'Rare Air' with Triple-Double

by Conrad Brunner

Indianapolis, Jan. 22, 2003 - In his never-ending quest to needle Jermaine O'Neal toward true greatness, Reggie Miller recently engaged his younger teammate in a locker-room debate about the possibility of achieving a triple-double.

O'Neal was certain it would happen some day, but hoped the third column would be filled with assists. As it turned out, it happened Wednesday night, but blocked shots made the difference. O'Neal had 18 points, 10 rebounds and a franchise-record 10 blocks. He also happened to score the clinching basket with Miller's help to lead the Pacers to their 12th consecutive home victory, 101-98 over the Toronto Raptors in Conseco Fieldhouse.

"I told him if he passed the ball more, he could've had a quadruple-double," Miller said, still prodding, "but that'll never happen, coming from Jermaine."

Of the 30 triple-doubles in franchise history, this was the first to involve blocked shots. His 10 tied the all-time club mark set in the 1971-72 ABA season by Darnell Hillman. He cemented the triple-double on the same play, blocking an Antonio Davis jumper, then grabbing the loose ball for his 10th rebound.

"That was Bill Russell-like, David Robinson-like," said coach Isiah Thomas, who clinched the head coaching job for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game with the victory. "He was everything we needed tonight. He saved us. ... a triple-double with blocked shots, you're talking about some rare air when you're with those guys.

"Had he not scored, he still would've been dominant."

About the only person who didn't seem particularly impressed by the performance was O'Neal himself.

"I've been frustrated with the way I've been shooting the ball, but blocking those shots will allow me to sleep tonight," he said. "But that's only for tonight. Tomorrow, it's back into the gym to work on my shot some more."

O'Neal set the franchise single-season record and tied for the NBA lead with 228 blocks in the 2000-01 season and ranked sixth (2.31) last season. But until recently, his shot-blocking numbers had been uncharacteristically low. In the past seven games, however, O'Neal has swatted 27 to raise his season average to 2.03.

"I just wanted to swing at everything I could get at," he said. "The last few games, I've really started to feel good and I feel my timing is really coming around. It was a bit frustrating earlier in the season with my (knee) injury, but I'm really starting to feel good out there."

He opened the fourth quarter with consecutive blocks against Davis - who wound up 6-of-19 from the field - and finished it with the biggest offensive play of the night. With the game tied at 97-all and 18.8 seconds remaining, Thomas set up the Pacers' pet play, sending Miller along the baseline to curl off an O'Neal screen.

But when Davis saw Miller coming, he stepped to the baseline to block the guard's path and no one dropped into the lane to guard O'Neal, who dunked through the arms of a late-arriving Jerome Williams, then finished the three-point play at the free-throw line with 3.2 seconds left.

"That's the Reggie Miller factor," O'Neal said. "He (Davis) and totally left me and I was extremely surprised."

Davis took responsibility for the defensive decision, calling it "a bad choice," and gave O'Neal full credit for his performance.

"For a guy that age to have the awareness of what his team needs at certain times of the game shows me a lot," he said. "I think when it's all said and done, he will be a big-time player in this league."

He already is. O'Neal could add another honor to his burgeoning dossier on Thursday evening, when the All-Star starters are announced. He was second among East forwards in the most recent balloting.

"Jermaine O'Neal played a great game," said Williams. "Ten blocks, 10 rebounds, 18 points, what can you say?"

If you're Reggie Miller, you say this: pass the ball, young fella.