by Conrad Brunner
April 29, 2002
Indianapolis, April 29, 2002 - The voice-mail message from a friend was left with Jermaine O'Neal late Friday night, simple in structure but profound in meaning: enjoy yourself.
"I really thought about that," O'Neal said. "I haven't enjoyed the game like I enjoyed the first game. I enjoyed that game. I think I've been putting too much on the last two games. I want to do so well and have my team and this city so proud of me and I'm just not coming through. I'm just going to relax, let the game come to me and I'm going to enjoy Game 4."
After opening the first-round series with 30 points in an 89-83 upset of the top-seeded Nets in New Jersey on April 20, O'Neal has been the center of attention - both from the media and the Nets' defense - in the days since. After being held to 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting in Game 2, a 95-79 loss, O'Neal inadvertently struck up a verbal sparring match with the Nets, who took umbrage to his claim that none of their defenders could stop him one-on-one.
Then came Game 3, which was preceded by a ceremony in which NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik presented O'Neal his Most Improved Player trophy. Playing at home, in front of a rabid crowd, O'Neal promptly came out, posted up Kenyon Martin - and had his shot blocked by a double-teaming Keith Van Horn. That started a New Jersey fast break that ended with a foul against O'Neal, whose surprisingly emphatic protest resulted in a technical foul. It was a bad start that snowballed into another 12-point game, this time on 5-of-17 shooting, and the Pacers lost 85-84.
So now, facing the season's end with one more loss, coming off his worst consecutive games of the season, O'Neal has decided to overlook the pressure and enjoy the moment.
"I don't feel any pressure," he said. "The other night was a perfect scenario for a player: homecourt, series tied, getting the award - I just couldn't make a shot. It was one of those games players dream of. Every time I shot the ball, I was one basket away from just exploding into some type of trance. But it didn't come at all in the first half; it came a little in the third quarter but not at all in the fourth."
Before this season began, Reggie Miller said the Pacers would go as far as O'Neal could carry them. The statement was reiterated before the playoffs began. While Miller racked up 58 points in the last two games, O'Neal has totaled 24 on 8-of-28 shooting. Clearly, there is pressure on O'Neal to perform.
Asked what the team needed from O'Neal in Game 4, Miller replied, "Everything."
"He's our leader," Miller continued. "He's our go-to guy. He commands a double-team in the post. He'll allow guys on the perimeter such as myself to get easy shots when he's double-teamed, so he just has to play like he had been playing the last two-and-a-half, three weeks."
The Nets have disguised their defenses well against O'Neal. Primary defender Kenyon Martin has handled him one-on-one as much as possible, but help has come from a variety of places - sometimes a guard, sometimes a forward, sometimes both, seemingly never from the same direction twice in a row.
"Our game plan against Jermaine is to make sure we keep him guessing," said Van Horn. "He doesn't know if we're coming or not and if we're coming, he doesn't know where we're coming from. We're just trying to make sure that every time he catches the ball that he's always looking over his shoulder."
Martin has also done a better job of fighting for position, denying O'Neal his preferred low-post spots so that when he catches the ball, he is farther away from the basket. A distance as small as one extra step can make a huge difference.
"That's been our whole thing, just to make sure we don't let him get down the post where he can take one dribble and try to shoot over us," said Nets coach Byron Scott. "If we can get him out and he has to take two or three dribbles, number one, we've got him off his spot, and number two, we can help if we have to. And number three, it makes him put the ball on the floor. He has to try to beat us."
Pacers coach Isiah Thomas, perhaps trying to ease some of the burden O'Neal may be feeling, said he wants him to concentrate more on defense and rebounding than scoring.
"We need Jermaine to be solid on the defensive side of the ball," he said. "He's not going to dominate the game on the offensive side of the ball. His rebounding, his shot-blocking, his ability to control his man are the things that are going to help us win the basketball game. Anything he gives us over 16, 18 points, that's a plus. But for the most part, what we need Jermaine to do is be a better defender out on the floor.
"Shooting comes and goes. I don't necessarily expect Jermaine to come out and shoot the ball extremely well every night. What we do expect and need from him is defensive effort and rebounding effort. Those are the ways he can win a basketball game. Those are the ways he can control a game. And if he happens to score, that's awesome. That's an added plus, a big bonus for us. What we need him to do is control the paint."
Martin has averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting .511 in the series and has outscored O'Neal 40-24 in the last two games, so improving individual defense alone could have a substantial impact.
"I picked up a couple quick fouls (in Game 3) and that always takes away a person's aggressiveness in terms of crowding a guy," O'Neal said. "Kenyon did a good job of moving around, recognizing that I had two fouls, (and) driving the ball to the basket. There's not much I can do when they put me on my heels like that. This game I plan on being a lot smarter, not picking up two fouls early and just trying to control the game offensively and defensively.
O'Neal spent extra time with assistant coach Mark Aguirre after practice on Sunday and Monday, going through a refresher course on low-post fundamentals.
"Just getting back to the basics," O'Neal said. "I can't take as much time. I can't really tell you guys what all I'm working on, but I'm just working on some of my techniques again to get some easier shots.
"Sometimes, scorers and shooters go through shooting problems and unfortunately for myself, it's happened the last two games. I can't really change anything. I've got to continue to shoot the same shots and hope they go in."
He makes it sounds as simple as having fun.