In two days, the Indiana Pacers lost their two most significant players.
They were relieved to get rid of one, and fairly upset about losing the other.
Though playing without Ron Artest is nothing new for the Pacers, his replacement, Peja Stojakovic, probably won’t be ready to play and Jermaine O’Neal definitely won’t be as they face the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A month after requesting a trade, Artest got his wish. The Pacers dealt the volatile former All-Star on Wednesday to Sacramento for Stojakovic.
“Maybe this was not the right team for a guy like Ronnie,” Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said. “Really, Ronnie couldn’t get out from under it and I hope he does in Sacramento because everyone needs a fresh start.”
Stojakovic is having a subpar season that has been plagued by injuries, having averaged 16.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in 31 starts for the Kings. He is expected to join the Pacers on Friday but is unlikely to see any playing time.
“Anytime you can acquire a player with his abilities as a shooter and a scorer—and we happen to think he’s a better defender than people give him credit for—we certainly need what he can bring us, especially with Jermaine (O’Neal) out now,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said.
O’Neal, who leads the team with 20.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, found out Thursday he would be sidelined for at least eight weeks after tearing his left groin in Indiana’s 96-66 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday.
“When things are going bad, you want to be there and play and help the team win,” O’Neal said. “Unfortunately, that mind-frame ultimately hurt my team because I hurt myself by coming back too early.”
After Thursday’s practice, O’Neal, who recently battled through a bout with pneumonia, said the tear likely occurred by him putting added stress on his groin area to protect an earlier injury to his ankle.
“It’s torn. I don’t have any choice,” he said. “I can barely walk straight, so I know I can’t play. … The serious nature of this injury could be career-threatening down the road. That I don’t want to do.”
O’Neal’s unexpected absence leaves the team in an even more dire situation than it already faced. The Pacers have lost four straight and are 6-12 since Dec. 21, falling within a game of .500.
The Pacers, who have gone 11-14 with Artest inactive, got a preview of what could happen without O’Neal.
Against the Cavaliers, Indiana had its lowest-scoring game of the season and shot a season-worst 33 percent from the floor. Stephen Jackson scored 17 points and O’Neal added seven points and 15 rebounds before his early exit.
“I don’t care about distractions or trades,” O’Neal said. “This is the hand we’ve been dealt, and we go play it.”
Cleveland separated its two games against Indiana with a 106-97 win over the struggling Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday.
LeBron James, the NBA’s third-leading scorer, hit 15 of 20 free throws and finished with 38 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Cavaliers.
“Coming off a back-to-back, with a big win (Tuesday) against Indiana, it would have been easy for us to not bring intensity,” James said. “Early on, our team didn’t have intensity. I saw that and I had to pretty much take over matters. I’ve been able to take my team on my back.”
Drew Gooden grabbed 14 rebounds for Cleveland, which has won three in a row after losing six straight.
The Cavaliers, who are 2-1 against the Pacers this season, will look to win the series for the first time since 1996-97. Cleveland had an eight-game winning streak snapped in its last visit to Indiana, losing 98-76 on Nov. 24.