Now, they’d just like to get through their much-anticipated holiday showdown against the Detroit Pistons without any further incident as the teams meet for the first time since their well-chronicled brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Ron Artest was suspended for the season, Stephen Jackson for 30 games and O’Neal 25 after the three were caught on tape throwing punches at fans during one of the ugliest incidents in NBA history on Nov. 19 in Detroit.
While Artest and Jackson will have to continue serving their suspensions, O’Neal received an early Christmas gift Wednesday after a federal judge upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reduce the forward’s punishment.
Judge George B. Daniels said he ruled in O’Neal’s favor before deciding the merits of the case because to make the player serve a punishment that may not be upheld could have “irreversible consequences for the player, the team, the player’s future and the league itself.”
O’Neal, a three-time All-Star and eight-year veteran, is now eligible to return for this contest at Conseco Fieldhouse. Even before the suspension reduction was upheld, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said O’Neal would start against Detroit.
“I think it will be great for Jermaine to be back on the floor,” Carlisle said. “That will be important to him and certainly to our fans. When you’re without your best player for a long time, it’s tough.”
Security will obviously be upgraded for the matchup as Indiana fans get their first chance to voice their frustration after watching Pistons fans fight with the Pacers and pelt them with drinks, popcorn, a chair and other debris.
“Our fans are pretty creative when it comes to jeering other teams,” said Pacers guard Anthony Johnson, who has already served a five-game suspension for his part in the brawl. “They come up with some very creative sayings. I look forward to hearing some of the things they have to say (Saturday).”
Indiana has lost 10 of 15 games since the brawl, using patchwork lineups in an effort to make up for the loss of three of the team’s five leading scorers.
“I just know it’s the best news we’ve had in about a month, since the incident occurred. It’s the only good news we’ve had,” Pacers executive Donnie Walsh said. “We still support our players. We still feel bad about Stephen and Ronnie being in the position they’re in.”
The Pistons have split 16 games since the brawl, and enter Sunday’s matchup tied with Indiana for second place in the Central Division.
The defending NBA champions lost All-Star center Ben Wallace for six games because it was his initial shove of Artest that sparked the incident in Detroit.
With his team struggling to find any consistency, Detroit coach Larry Brown boiled over in frustration himself during Wednesday’s 89-82 home loss to Chicago. Brown was fined $15,000 by the NBA on Thursday for verbal abuse of an official after he had to be restrained while arguing with referee Anthony Jordan.
“The guy (Jordan) wouldn’t talk to me during the game,” Brown said. “I can’t understand that. I wasn’t being discourteous. Well, I was at the end, and I suppose I’ll hear about that.”