O'Neal's Best Game a Big One for Pacers

by Conrad Brunner

March 21, 2003

COURTSIDE VIEW
Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, March 21, 2003 - It might seem hard to make an argument that a home victory over Memphis would qualify as a big game. But make no mistake, that's precisely what this was for the Pacers.

It was big not just for what did happen - a comeback from a 19-point third-quarter deficit to produce a 101-92 victory - but what didn't. Had Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal not put together a memorable tag team performance to lift the Pacers out of their doldrums, this could easily have been a devastating loss that would re-open the wounds of an ugly slump.

Instead, the team's two most important players - sorry, Ron Artest fans - made possible a stirring victory that pushed the Pacers up a spot in the standings, into third place ahead of a Sixers team that lost in Atlanta Friday night. The Pacers also gained a game on the Central Division leaders, as Detroit was beaten in New York; the deficit is down to 2½ games.

"I wanted to win extremely bad, especially being here and having the opportunity to pick up some games," said O'Neal. "These are games we need to pick up, especially with Detroit, New Jersey and Philly coming up. Those guys are in front of us right now and we want to win all the games we can win, especially on our home court."

O'Neal produced what might've been the best all-around game of his career: 38 points, 18 rebounds, three blocked shots, three steals and two assists. After going 0-for-5 in the first quarter, he hit 16-of-20 before missing his final two attempts in the waning moments.

"It was the most dominant game he's had here," said coach Isiah Thomas. "He just took over the game. He was everywhere. He was blocking shots, he was rebounding, he was scoring, jump shots, fallaway shots, layups, dunks, diving on the floor, loose balls. I would say in the second half, he was probably involved in every offensive and defensive play."

Memphis had totally dominated the first 30 minutes, outscoring the Pacers 28-4 on fast-break points in the first half, then stretching the lead to 70-51 with 6:15 left in the third quarter.

Though Miller usually reserves his heroics for the final few minutes, he sensed the team's dire need. He hit a 3-pointer, then a jumper, then a pair of free throws - seven consecutive points that closed the gap to 70-58. After a pair of O'Neal buckets, Miller converted a three-point play and suddenly it was 70-65.

Miller pointed to "effort, hustle and determination" as the sources for the rally.

"We were getting embarrassed on our homecourt and these are two big games for us to try to get back into the thick of things to get one of the top three spots in the East," he said. "We had laid an egg up until the 8- or 9-minute mark of the third quarter but our defense picked up and we hit some shots, and they missed a lot of shots, but we got out and ran, got some easy ones and Jermaine was the man tonight."

The third-quarter run was helped along by 3-pointers from Erick Strickland and Austin Croshere and the Pacers closed the period trailing just 76-75.

"Reggie really got us going with the shots he made," O'Neal said. "We fed off of that. When you see him out there doing those types of things, it gets you going. It was contagious for myself and everybody else."

O'Neal took it from there. He put the home team ahead quickly on the first possession of the third period and just kept rolling. He scored 14 of the Pacers' first 20 points of the final period. By the time his legs finally gave way and the shot stopped falling, the lead had grown to 95-84.

"I hope pride kicked in," said O'Neal. "It's an important part of the year for us and to go out and play the way we played in the first half was extremely unacceptable."

Though O'Neal didn't consider this his finest performance, Thomas and Miller agreed that it was - not just because of the statistics he amassed, but the level of overall play to which he rose.

"Tonight, he put us on his back," said Thomas, "and we rode him as far as he could go."

"He did everything," Miller said. "There's not one thing he didn't do tonight."

Well, there was one thing he simply refused to do: lose.