O’Neal, who made a strong return to the lineup Sunday after missing two games, leads the Pacers in the opener of a home-and-home set with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The All-Star forward suffered a bruised left knee in a win over Chicago last Monday and watched his teammates step up in victories over Dallas and Orlando. He returned against Miami on Sunday and had 23 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, leading the Pacers to an 87-80 win.
“I give a lot of credit to Jermaine O’Neal for stepping in there and playing today,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “His knee is better but it’s still a little sore, and it’s tough to come in there after missing a couple of games.”
O’Neal played 35 minutes, scoring 10 points in the third quarter, but shot just 8-of-21 from the field.
“I didn’t shoot as well as I wanted,” O’Neal said. “I think it’s rust. Hopefully, it’ll come with a day of practice and these two games with Milwaukee.”
Ron Artest, who averaged 27.5 points in O’Neal’s absence, added 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, despite having to leave the game briefly with a sprained right ankle.
Artest was later hit in the face going up for a rebound and will have his nose examined to see if it’s broken.
“They play hard: we go hard,” said Artest, who also finished with six steals and four assists. “We just had to keep going to the basket.”
The Pacers own the best road record in the NBA at 25-12 and have four road games remaining.
The Bucks were in position to win consecutive games for the first time in nearly a month, but blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 111-107 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
Michael Redd had 36 points and a career-high 14 rebounds and Joe Smith scored a season-high 25 points for Milwaukee, playing without Keith Van Horn after he sprained his left ankle and bruised his left calf in a win at Chicago on Friday.
“I thought our guys came out and played extremely hard,” Bucks coach Terry Porter said. “We did everything we could to give ourselves a chance to win the game.”
Milwaukee missed a chance to tie New Orleans for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and still holds a one-game lead over the Heat for the fifth playoff spot.
The Bucks, 24-12 at the Bradley Center, have lost four straight home games for the first time since February 2000.
The series concludes at Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday.