Jim O’Brien thinks his Indiana Pacers can make a charge to the playoffs during the second half of the season, but the team will be starting that stretch run without one of their most dangerous players.
Indiana (18-23) announced before Saturday’s 110-104 loss to Sacramento that O’Neal would miss at least two weeks with a bruised right knee. O’Neal left Wednesday’s win over Golden State with pain in the knee and an MRI the following day revealed the injury.
“It’s not a good thing that Jermaine is out, but now we know at least he’s going to be out for a while, so we can move on for the next couple weeks and try to get something going,” said forward Mike Dunleavy, who leads the Pacers with 17.4 points per game.
O’Neal, a six-time All-Star, is averaging 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Including Saturday’s game, however, he has missed 90 games over the past 3 1/2 seasons due to injuries, illnesses and suspensions.
“We have some experience in being without Jermaine,” O’Brien said. “You hate to see any player go down for an extended period of time, but you just have to deal with it.”
The Pacers have dropped 10 of their last 13 games and have allowed at least 105 points in seven straight. However, they have scored in triple figures in each of their last five and are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with half of their schedule in the books.
“I like this group of guys, I like their attitude. They worked very, very hard and they’re never out of a game,” O’Brien said. “I think this team is poised to make a run at the playoffs. I think our team will have a better record in the second half of the season than in the first.”
The Pacers have won five of seven against the 76ers (16-25), including a 102-85 home victory on Dec. 19 in the first meeting this season.
Philadelphia has won two of three since a seven-game losing streak, including Saturday’s 99-95 victory over Toronto.
Willie Green matched a season high with 23 points, and Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala each added 20 for the 76ers, who won for the second time in six home games. Samuel Dalembert posted his fourth double-double in five games with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
“We’re just trying to get better night-in and night-out,” coach Maurice Cheeks said. “I like our young guys getting out on the floor, getting the chance to play, getting a chance to get better every night.”
O’Brien is returning to Philadelphia for the first time since he was fired as 76ers coach following the 2004-05 season, when he led the team to its last winning record and last playoff berth. Cheeks took over as coach in 2005-06.
“Just get a ‘W,’ that’s all I’m concerned about,” O’Brien said of his return.