O'Neal Returns to Practice

by Conrad Brunner

November 19, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS, November 19, 2001 - After completing his first full-contact work in nearly a week, Jermaine O'Neal said he felt ''pretty good'' and that he looked forward to returning to the floor for Tuesday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks.

For a Pacers team riding a four-game losing streak, three of which were played without O'Neal, that was pretty good news, indeed. The Pacers certainly will be without backup guard Travis Best, who was placed on the injured list Saturday with a strained right hamstring and will be out until at least Nov. 27, and could also be without center Primoz Brezec, who started two games in O'Neal's absence but suffered a sprained right ankle Saturday night.

''I had a pretty good practice, so I'm looking forward to playing tomorrow,'' O'Neal said. ''Obviously, I banged around for the first time in a week or so. It's going to be kind of interesting to see how I feel in the morning but as far as practicing and getting up and down, I felt really good.''

O'Neal missed the last two games, and three of four, with a bruised lower back, the result of wear and tear and not a single trauma. He took the court just once in the past eight days, playing 39 minutes and scoring 14 points with 13 rebounds in a 101-93 loss at Boston last Wednesday night, but was frustrated by the limitations the sore back placed upon his game. After four consecutive days of rest, medication and therapy, O'Neal believes he's ready to go.

''I had to have (the time off) for my back to get better,'' he said. ''It was sore for a long period of time and gradually got worse. I think the time really helped. It was kind of frustrating to a point, because when you go on a losing streak like that and you can't be involved in trying to help your team, it's tough. But in order to help your team, you've got to be 100 percent and I feel like I'm very close to 100 percent right now.''

O'Neal also said he had no reason to believe the pain would become chronic.

''It's nothing structural, so the doctors feel like it's going to go away,'' he said. ''I need to continue to stretch every day, just continue to take care of my body even more now. It's more of a tissue problem in my back, and I think now I'm healed. I've taken my medication, I've stretched, I've rehabbed and I feel pretty good about playing (Tuesday night).''

Coach Isiah Thomas was encouraged by O'Neal's practice performance, but wasn't yet ready to declare him a certainty for the game.

''That is a good sign, and hopefully he'll wake up (Tuesday morning) and feel the same way,'' Thomas said. ''He looked pretty good practicing, but you'll see how it responds after getting banged around a little bit.''

TINSLEY TAKES OVER WITH BIG WEEKEND

Though the Pacers lost two games over the weekend, they found out a lot more about their rookie point guard. After racking up 12 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds, six steals and five blocked shots in a double-overtime loss to Minnesota, Jamaal Tinsley came back to score 28 points and pull 13 rebounds in Detroit.

''I love the way Jamaal is playing. Every game you find out something new that he has in his bag of tricks,'' said Thomas. ''It's a joy to coach him, it's a joy to watch him. He goes out there and competes every minute he's on the floor. He's in every single play, whether it be a rebound, a steal, a loose ball. He's playing with such heart and such passion that I hope it trickles down through the rest of our team.''

With Best injured, the problem becomes finding creative ways to give Tinsley enough rest without disrupting the offensive flow. Tinsley played 93 of a possible 106 minutes in the two games. In Best's absence, Jalen Rose takes the backup minutes at the point.

''When he's off the floor, there's a noticeable difference in our basketball team without Travis,'' Thomas said. ''When Travis is here and Jamaal goes out of the game, you're able to sustain what you're doing. But without Travis, when he goes out of the game it's a huge dropoff.''

Plus-minus statistics back up Thomas. In Tinsley's 93 minutes on the floor in the last two games, the Pacers outscored their opponents by one point. In the 13 minutes he did not play, the Pacers were outscored by 14.

BREZEC'S PERFORMANCES ENCOURAGING TO THOMAS

After encouraging performances in the first two starts of his career, rookie center Primoz Brezec suffered a sprained ankle in the final seconds of the first half of Saturday night's 104-98 loss, when he landed on Corliss Williamson's foot after grabbing a rebound.

Brezec did not practice Monday, working out on the side instead, and Thomas wasn't sure if he'd be available Tuesday night.

''I don't know how his body will respond to injuries or how quickly he can come back,'' Thomas said. ''I would say he, like Jermaine, is probably day-to-day.''

In two starts, Brezec totaled 31 minutes, eight points and five rebounds. Though he found himself in early foul trouble in both games, Brezec's play impressed the coach.

''He actually gave me a little bit more than I thought he would be able to give,'' Thomas said. ''He scored, he rebounded the basketball and defensively he was pretty solid. He got caught out on the floor one time with the shot-clock running down guarding Cliff Robinson (against Detroit), which was a bad switch and a matchup, and Robinson put it on the floor and took it around him.

''But for the most part, defensively he was solid and he scored the basketball - and he didn't score from us going to him, he found ways to get open, found ways to create shots for himself, which was a good sign.''

THOMAS MAINTAINS CONFIDENCE IN CROSHERE

Though Austin Croshere is struggling to find his shooting stroke, Thomas said he will stick with the young veteran.

Croshere is six of 26 (.231) from the floor in the last six games, one of 11 (.091) from the arc. He has averaged 3.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.0 minutes in that span. Against Detroit he found other ways to contribute, grabbing seven rebounds and scoring three of his nine points from the free-throw line.

''If you take away his shooting, I think he's probably in the proper mindset, to just go out and compete hard,'' he said. ''Scoring will come. Scoring is the result of doing things right out on the floor. Austin's trying, and we're going to stick with him just as we did last year.''

With Best injured and Croshere struggling, the second unit has been hit hard. The Pistons enjoyed a 54-26 edge in bench scoring.

''The guys that played, I thought they played as well as they possibly could under the circumstances,'' Thomas said. ''We found out a lot about some guys that we wouldn't have found out about had we not had these injuries. If we can put our whole team back together, get healthy and get some practice time in, we just want to get better from week to week and month to month and I think we're capable of doing that.''

PACERS PLAYING THEIR OWN VERSION OF 'SURVIVOR'

After playing four games in five nights for two straight weeks, you'd think the schedule would lighten. You'd think wrong.

The Pacers have three home games in four nights this week, then hit the road for a five-game, eight-night Western Conference trip beginning Sunday. When they return from that trip on Dec. 3, they will have played 20 games in 34 days, including eight sets of back-to-back doubleheaders.

''If anybody had looked at our schedule at the start of the season and said you'd be 6-6 after this stretch, that ain't bad,'' Thomas said. ''We've got a chance to win three games here at home, then you go out on the road and you take your chances there.

''If we can come back from that West Coast trip somewhere around .500 or better, then we've got a chance to make up some ground and play well. You can be healthy, and you'll get practice time. Coming out of training camp, we haven't had much practice time, so there's been some slippage.''

One thing the tight schedule offers is the ability to get on a roll - in either direction. Two weeks ago, the Pacers won four straight. Last week, they lost four straight.

''We went from 6-2 to 6-6 all in a week,'' O'Neal said. ''If we can get Travis healthy, get Primoz healthy, obviously myself, then I think we're going to be really good once we get these guys back on the court.

''I feel like we're going to survive this stretch. We have to just dig hard, because we're right there in all the games, we've just got to get over the hump. We haven't closed games out - a missed rebound here, a shot made there. If we do those things, we're going to win ballgames.''