O’Neal is suffering from a sprained neck, which caused him to miss Indiana’s 85-72 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday. His status is day-to-day.
Tuesday’s game also marks the first meeting between Indiana and New York since former Pacers coach Isiah Thomas took over as Knicks’ president and general manager on Dec. 22, just four months after Indiana president of basketball operations Larry Bird fired him.
During his introductory press conference as Knicks president, Thomas said of Bird, “I wanted to beat him as a player and I want to beat him now.”
The rivalry between the two reaches back two decades to the former All-Stars’ playing days, when Thomas’ Pistons and Bird’s Celtics were battling for Eastern Conference titles.
The possible absence of O’Neal is also ironic, as the All-Star was vocal about Thomas’ firing.
“I’m extremely disappointed for multiple reasons,” said O’Neal, who signed a seven-year, $120 million contract in the offseason. “I was told he would be here before I re-signed.
“If your boss told you your ace is going to be there for you if you come back, and once you come back not even a month later he’s not there, that hurts. That hurts a lot. He was more than a coach to me. He was like a father.”
O’Neal had played fine for Rick Carlisle, Bird’s choice to replace Thomas. He is having his finest season as a pro, averaging team-best totals in scoring (20.4) and rebounding (10.4). He is fourth in the league in blocked shots with 2.72.
“Everybody here steps it up when somebody is out,” Artest said. “When you lose an offense like J.O., you don’t try to replace it, you just play aggressive and play the game the right way to win.”
The Knicks have shown some improvement under Thomas, going 10-9 after starting the season 10-18.
The main reason for that improvement was Thomas’ acquisition of Stephon Marbury, who since his arrival on Jan. 6 has averaged 18.8 points and 9.9 assists in 14 games.