After missing 24 games with a torn left groin muscle, Jermaine O’Neal is excited to be back on the court.
“I’m looking forward to playing against those guys,” O’Neal said. “To tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to playing against anybody. I’ve been out so long.”
O’Neal scored 16 points off the bench in his return to action on Wednesday, a 95-85 win over the Chicago Bulls. Indiana had dropped three of its previous four contests.
The Pacers’ leading scorer has 16 regular-season games to regain his form before the playoffs start, provided his team reaches them. Indiana is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, six games ahead of ninth-place Chicago.
“It’s essential that we have some time to get him re-integrated into our team,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “There’s going to be an adjustment here because we’ve been running a lot more, we’ve been doing a lot more movement stuff. We’re going to have to continue with that but at times the ball is going to have to go through him inside.”
Jamaal Tinsley also has returned after missing time with a back injury and sinus infection. Austin Croshere will miss Friday’s game because of concussion symptoms, but the Pacers should return to full strength soon.
“Nobody can make excuses now,” Pacers guard Stephen Jackson said. “We have everybody back. It’s time to go to work and play like we know how.”
O’Neal said will use the rest of the regular season to help develop chemistry on the court with his teammates.
“It’s not necessarily about getting a rhythm,” said O’Neal, who has missed both Pistons games this season. “It’s about me and my teammates getting a rhythm together and making a run. We feel like we have something special but we have to put in the work to get to that special level.”
The Pistons won their third straight game on Wednesday, coming back from a 12-point deficit to defeat Miami, 82-73. Chauncey Billups led the way with 24 points and 10 assists. The winning streak follows a 4-4 stretch which matched Detroit’s worst eight-game period of the season.
The Pistons are 36-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 90 points this season.
“This wasn’t any kind of statement,” said Rasheed Wallace, who had seven points and 10 rebounds. “This was just playing a game against a very good team.”
Detroit has won four of the last five meetings with Indiana, including the final three games of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals.