The Indiana Pacers need to make it through one game before reinforcements arrive.
After acquiring one-third of an active roster in an eight-man deal Wednesday, the Pacers are hoping a midseason shakeup can spark a run to the top of a lackluster Eastern Conference. However, those new additions will not be in uniform Thursday night against a Miami club that is practiced in playing at less than full strength.
Unfortunately for the Heat, neither will O’Neal, who stoked the anticipation of fans Wednesday by going through his first full-contact workout.
“Each individual knows when they’re ready,” interim coach Ron Rothstein said Thursday morning. “He wants to play. You think he wants to do all those court drills? It’s much easier playing. But he’s not ready to play yet, in any sense. Confidence in the leg, conditioning, wind … You’ve got to remember, he’s 7-foot-1, 330 pounds.
“He’s a different individual.”
A day earlier, O’Neal was optimistic about his return, but stressed caution.
“I’m very anxious to be out there with the guys, but I want to be at 1,000 percent so I can help them and not slow down the process,” he said.
At least Indiana has O’Neal’s absence in its favor. If missing four players wasn’t enough of a disadvantage for the Pacers, the Heat are starting to play like the championship team of last season—even without their most accomplished player, who has missed 33 of 37 games.
After a slow start to the season marked by poor play, injuries to their superstars and a leave of absence by coach Pat Riley, Miami is heating up—and getting healthy.
With its star center on the mend and with Dwyane Wade back in the lineup after missing almost five full games, Miami (17-20) has confidence that it will soon return to title form.
“We haven’t forgotten what won us the championship—and it wasn’t that long ago,” Alonzo Mourning said. “So I expect us to get better and stay healthy. I know that as soon as we get our rotation back and everybody back healthy, we’re a team to be reckoned with.”
Indiana (20-18) is also a team to be reckoned with—particularly in an up-for-grabs conference—and is hoping its trade with Golden State for Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod re-energizes the club while ridding it of some of the distractions brought on by Stephen Jackson.
“We feel we made a pretty significant trade for the franchise that will be good for both teams,” Pacers president Larry Bird said. “We feel the players we got will make a significant difference in the franchise.”
That difference will not be felt on the court Thursday night, when Indiana will get a taste of what it feels to play like the Heat have all season.
In addition to missing O’Neal, Wade suffered a sprained wrist Dec. 27 in the first quarter against Chicago, forcing him to miss the rest of that game plus the next four. Without him, the club went 0-5 for its longest losing streak of the season.
When Wade returned Jan. 7 against Portland, Miami strung together four straight road victories for its longest win streak of the season before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers 124-118 in overtime Monday.
Wade is averaging 30.2 points and 8.6 assists since his return, and he’s shot nearly 16 free throws per game during that stretch. Thanks in large part to the play of their star guard, the Heat finished their season-high six-game road trip with a 4-2 record.
While Miami is looking to get healthy, the Pacers are hoping to survive Thursday’s game and then take advantage of a favorable home schedule that coincides with the arrival of their new personnel. Indiana will play 12 of its next 15 games at Conseco Fieldhouse, where it is 10-6 this season.
The Pacers are coming off a 105-95 loss to New Jersey on Monday. Despite the respectable final deficit, Indiana was down by as much as 27 in the second half.
“We got beat soundly the first three quarters,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The guys who played the fourth won the quarter by 15, but we never got within striking distance to be in position to be in the game. It’s disappointing because we made some significant strides over the last week to 10 days. Today we took a step back.”
If Indiana is to make any more significant strides in the new year, it will have to start focusing on defense. The Pacers have given up 106.7 points per game in their three January losses, compared to 83.0 in their three wins.
This will be the first of four meetings between the Pacers and Heat this season. Indiana won the season series 2-1 in 2005-06 and is 14-2 in its last 16 games against Miami, including 6-2 in its last eight at AmericanAirlines Arena.