INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal hardly resembled an All-Star until it mattered most Sunday.
He shot poorly, got into foul trouble and was careless with the ball.
But when the Pacers needed a big play in the game’s closing seconds, O’Neal delivered twice with a gritty effort. He blocked Mike Miller’s driving layup out of bounds with 4.6 seconds left, then made sure no Memphis players could rebound Miller’s errant 3-pointer to preserve the Pacers’ 76-73 victory.
“It’s been one of those years where it’s been a challenge in every corner,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “I tell the guys we’ve got to fight out of it. That’s what we did tonight.”
Carlisle almost found himself backed into another difficult decision before the game.
He nearly held out O’Neal, who has been bothered recently by sore feet, sore knees, a hip-pointer and a bruised right hand.
Instead, O’Neal played as much as he could and endured a dismal performance.
He made just four of 15 shots and finished with 11 points, less than half his average. He also grabbed eight rebounds, was charged with five of the team’s 15 turnovers, and was 0-for-6 from the field in the fourth quarter when the Pacers typically rely on him.
Fortunately for O’Neal, his teammates bailed him out.
Stephen Jackson scored 19 points, including two 3-pointers, and had eight rebounds. Fred Jones came off the bench to score 15 points, including nine during a second-quarter run that allowed the Pacers to take control, and Jeff Foster had 17 rebounds—one short of tying his career high.
It was just what the Pacers needed after a fourth-quarter collapse against Houston on Friday.
“You play to win,” O’Neal said. “You can see with my shooting the last couple games that it’s bothered me.”
The loss ended Memphis’ three-game winning streak, and dropped the Grizzlies to 0-9 all-time in Indianapolis.
And the defensive slugfest was as ugly as the final score indicated.
The Grizzlies were led by Lorenzen Wright, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds, but shot even worse than they did in Friday’s victory over Portland. In that game, Memphis shot 35.7 percent. On Sunday, the Grizzlies were an abysmal 34.7 percent from the field.
“We battled back and gave ourselves a chance,” coach Mike Fratello said. “The first and third quarters were almost exact replicas—very little offense, very little defense for us.”
The Pacers weren’t much better offensively, especially in the fourth quarter. Indiana shot just 36.5 percent for the game and was an inexplicable 2-of-15 from the field in the final 12 minutes.
O’Neal and the Pacers explained they were running out of energy.
“It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but we were able to keep the game at the pace we needed,” Carlisle said. “What a great win because it’s been tough to win lately.”
Indiana took control early in the second quarter with a 15-5 run, during which Jones scored nine points. That gave the Pacers a 36-26 lead.
Memphis closed to 44-39 at halftime, but the Pacers opened the second half on a 13-2 run and still led 64-52 after three quarters.
But just when it looked as if Indiana would roll, O’Neal and his teammates went cold.
Memphis continually pounded the ball inside to Bonzi Wells and Stromile Swift early in the fourth quarter. Wells responded with six straight points, and Brian Cardinal followed that with a 3-pointer. Swift added a dunk, then hit one of two free throws and Earl Watson a 3-pointer to make it 70-67 with 5:25 to go.
“We’ve been losing a lot of leads lately, it’s something we have to fix,” Foster said. “But at this point, we’ll take any win we can get.”
Indiana answered with five straight points to regain control, and the Grizzlies managed just one more basket the rest of the way—Watson’s 3 with 1:37 to go.
Memphis got to 76-73 with 35.2 seconds left on two free throws from Wright, but the Pacers couldn’t close it out until O’Neal’s block and Miller’s errant 3, which would have sent the game to overtime.
“We could have done some things differently at the end,” Fratello lamented. “We could have taken a timeout there at the end. But give Indiana credit for playing good defense.”
Six of the Pacers’ last eight wins have come against teams with winning records. … Fratello coached in his 1,073rd game Sunday, leaving him two behind Chuck Daly on the career list. Fratello needs three wins to become the 19th coach in league history to win 600 games. … Memphis’ Shane Battier scored his 3,000th career point with his first basket.