INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Rick Carlisle knew Al Harrington would be pumped up for his first game against his former team.
Carlisle watched as the Atlanta forward almost beat the Indiana Pacers all by himself Wednesday night.
Jermaine O’Neal’s big game spoiled an otherwise happy homecoming for his good friend Harrington. O’Neal had 25 points and 13 rebounds to offset a dazzling performance by Harrington in the Pacers’ 93-86 victory over the Hawks.
“This is what Al’s capable of doing,” Carlisle said. “He’s capable of being a top-level, big-time player and he showed that tonight.”
Harrington, who spent his first six seasons in Indiana before being traded in the offseason for Stephen Jackson, scored 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting. That was nearly enough.
Austin Croshere added 13 points, 13 rebounds and two electrifying dunks in the fourth quarter to help the Pacers ward off the pesky Hawks.
Harrington dropped a pretty 18-foot fadeaway over Ron Artest to give the Hawks a 74-71 lead with 6:28 to play, but the Pacers responded with a 16-4 run to take control. Croshere had two dunks and O’Neal hit a nifty turnaround in the lane during the spurt.
“It was the best-case scenario,” Croshere said. “Al had a big game and we won.”
But Indiana’s Eastern Conference-leading sixth win didn’t come easy, mostly because of Harrington’s inspired play.
Tired of coming off the bench in Indiana, Harrington asked for a trade in the offseason to a team where he would play a larger role, and he certainly has that with the lowly Hawks (2-6).
He clearly has embraced the increased responsibility, becoming a vocal leader. After the game, Harrington could be heard outside the locker room shouting at a few of his teammates for taking the loss too lightly.
“It wasn’t good enough,” Harrington said. “This is a team game. For the most part we are getting better because I promise you a week ago, Indiana would have beat us by 30.”
After receiving a warm welcome from the crowd, his emotional play sparked Atlanta to a big early lead. The Hawks shot 74 percent from the field in the first quarter to go up 31-16.
“That was good,” Harrington said of the ovation. “It just goes to show that all the things I did here for my six years they appreciated.”
The Pacers got back into the game in the second quarter, taking advantage of 35 percent shooting from the Hawks and O’Neal’s dominance in the post.
O’Neal went right at Atlanta’s overmatched front line, driving to the basket early and often for dunks and fouls. The Pacers kept charging in the second half, outscoring Atlanta 22-13 in the third quarter to take a 64-62 lead.
Were it not for Harrington, the Hawks might have never had a chance. He scored eight of his team’s 13 points in the third quarter to keep Atlanta close.
Most of those points came against Artest, last season’s defensive player of the year.
While his pride was hurt a little bit by giving up 30 to his buddy, Artest said he wasn’t surprised by Harrington’s success.
“That’s how he played every day in practice,” Artest said. “Al played great. I hope he’s an All-Star.”
He played like one on Wednesday, but the Pacers had too much depth and balance. Artest had 24 points and four steals, and Croshere, Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley all came up with big shots down the stretch to supplement O’Neal.
“That’s been the story of our season so far,” O’Neal said. “We have too much offensively.”
And while O’Neal had plenty of help, Harrington didn’t have nearly the supporting cast.
Antoine Walker was the only other Hawks player in double figures with 16 points, but he shot just 7-of-21 and was 0-for-4 from the free-throw line.
So the Harrington-for-Jackson swap appears to have helped all involved. Jackson wanted to play for a winner and Harrington was willing to sacrifice those wins for more playing time.
When asked what was the toughest part of coming back to Conseco Fieldhouse, Harrington said: “Coming to (the visitors’) locker room. I wanted to go over to that locker room, took the wrong turn. It kept leading me that way, but I just had to realize that’s over now and I just have to move on, and I am.”
Harrington is not the only Hawks player with Indiana ties. Hawks coach Mike Woodson played at Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and starred at Indiana University. General manager Billy Knight is a former player and front office executive for the Pacers. … Pacers G Reggie Miller had the cast on his broken left hand removed. … Pacers F Jonathan Bender returned to the lineup after missing the previous six games with an injured left knee.