A recent 11-game losing streak couldn’t derail the Indiana Pacers’ playoff hopes. They hope the questionable health of their leading scorer won’t either.
O’Neal missed the Pacers’ 100-99 win over San Antonio on Sunday because of a sore left knee. He had 10 points on 4-of-18 shooting in Indiana’s 95-87 loss at Orlando on Friday after sitting out Wednesday’s 118-94 defeat in New Jersey.
O’Neal, who is averaging a team-high 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, has missed five of the last 13 games with the injury, but coach Rick Carlisle said Indiana (32-41) is not considering shutting him down for the season with the team still in the playoff picture.
The Pacers are in ninth place in the East, 1 1/2 games behind the Magic for the final playoff spot with nine games left.
Sunday’s win over the Spurs snapped a four-game skid for Indiana, which saw Jamaal Tinsley hit the game-winning layup with 1.1 seconds left. The Pacers trailed by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter.
“It just shows that they’re fighting, and some people are openly questioning that,” said Carlisle, whose team is just 3-17 since Feb. 23. “I think tonight showed a lot in terms of their belief that this thing isn’t over. We preach to our guys continuously, ‘Hey, hang in there, give yourself a chance.’ Some people are seeing it differently, but not me.”
The Pistons (47-26) are coming off a 94-88 win over Miami on Sunday, their fourth victory in five games. Richard Hamilton returned to the lineup after missing four games with a concussion and the flu, and scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half.
“In the first half, (coach Flip Saunders) was being cautious, because he didn’t know what I had, but I told him that I wouldn’t be out there if I wasn’t ready,” said Hamilton, who was 5-of-7 from the field and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line in the second half.
“After seven days of headaches and dizziness, it was just good to be moving around again.”
Detroit trailed by five at the half and despite 11 points by Hamilton in the third quarter, still trailed by four entering the final period. Hamilton’s jumper with less than two minutes left broke an 85-all tie, and the Pistons never trailed after that.
Saunders gave credit for the win to the reserves, who outscored Miami’s bench players 34-11.
“Our bench was great - not just from a scoring standpoint, but their energy,” he said. “They gave the starters a chance to get some significant rest, and then win the game in the last four minutes.”
The win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Boston later in the day, gave the Pistons a 3 1/2-game lead over the Cavaliers in the Central Division.
The Pistons lost the first two meetings between these teams this season before Hamilton led the way with 21 points in a 95-87 win on Jan. 28. O’Neal scored 26 points in that game for Indiana.