O’Neal had 24 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Pacers to a 74-71 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night, hours before he was to go before a federal judge to see if he can continue to play.
An arbitrator ruled that O’Neal could play after serving 15 games of the 25-game suspension he received for fighting with fans in the Pacers-Pistons brawl last month.
The NBA challenged the arbitrator’s ruling, and both sides will meet Thursday in a New York courtroom, where the judge can decide to let O’Neal play or return him to the suspended list.
“I can say what-if about a whole lot of things,” O’Neal said. “Whatever the outcome is, I’ll deal with it.”
Although O’Neal broke from his pregame policy of not talking to the media and spoke at length about his suspension and the pending hearing, he seemed weary of the topic afterward.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” he said. “It’s seven weeks old.”
O’Neal didn’t have a great shooting night, going just 9-for-24, but gave the Pacers a tremendous lift and a low-post presence. In the three games he’s played since the arbitrator’s ruling, O’Neal has contributed 61 points and 35 rebounds.
Against the Bobcats, he gave Indiana a 69-67 lead on a putback, and with the Pacers clinging to a 72-71 lead, O’Neal stole a pass from Jason Hart that led to Jeff Foster’s basket, which pushed their lead to 74-71 with 1:22 to play.
After a series of misses for both teams, Jamaal Tinsley missed for Indiana and the Bobcats grabbed the rebound with the clock winding down. They raced up the court needing a 3-pointer to go into overtime, but O’Neal got a piece of Hart’s shot at the buzzer.
“He played great,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said. “He made two huge plays down the stretch … great players make big-time plays when it counts.”
As the game ended, Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff seemed to be lecturing rookie Emeka Okafor, who passed the ball to Hart for the final shot, about the final play.
“I think down the stretch it was a learning experience for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We made some mistakes. We take the 2 (instead of the 3), the clock stops and we foul them, so (Emeka) was upset.”
It was one of the few things Okafor did wrong as he had his 17th consecutive double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Still, he was angry with the final play.
“I was confused, everything was going so fast,” Okafor said. “I was caught by surprise … I had the ball. I could have called a timeout. I could have scored a bucket. I didn’t do it.”
Tinsley scored 14 for Indiana, which last won back-to-back games on Dec. 14 at Atlanta and Dec. 17 against Toronto.
Jahidi White, activated from the injured list before the game, played for the first time since Nov. 30 even though his ailing shoulder is less than 100 percent. But the Bobcats needed a big body, and White was able to fill in when needed.
He checked in with 1:29 to play in the first quarter and Charlotte trailing 14-10. But he quickly scored on a putback, blocked a David Harrison shot that sent Harrison sprawling onto the court, and occupied two Pacers under the basket while Kareem Rush hit a 3 to put the Bobcats up 15-14.
White finished with six points, three rebounds and three blocked shots in eight minutes.
Notes:@ With three players on the injured list and Brevin Knight and Primoz Brezec out with illness, Bickerstaff said he might consider using a zone defense because of the lack of bodies. “One thing I’ve learned is you have to do things conducive to your team,” Bickerstaff said. “The zone is a way of protecting your personnel.” … Brezec’s wife gave birth to their first child, a girl named Nika, on Tuesday. … Indiana made just 3 of 12 3-pointers. … Reggie Miller missed all three of his 3 attempts and finished with six points on 2-for-8 shooting.