INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Jermaine O’Neal got off to a rough start in his return after sitting out for more than two months with a knee injury.
He got a loud cheer from Indiana Pacers fans when he stepped on the court late in the first quarter against the Miami Heat, but the buzz dissipated when he traveled the first time he touched the ball, then quickly committed a foul on defense.
He was fine the rest of the game. He scored nine points in 18 minutes, and the Pacers beat the Heat 105-85 on Monday night.
O’Neal had missed 33 straight games with a bone bruise on his left knee, but he shot 3-for-4 from the field and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line against the Heat.
“I didn’t feel as rusty as I thought I would be,” O’Neal said. “The tempo of the game was probably a lot less than what we’ve had in practice over the last couple days, so I think that really helped. All and all, I think it was a pretty good game for me.”
O’Neal said his knee felt good after the game.
“I think I’m definitely past that stage as far as being able to say, ‘OK, I’m going to play this game and then sit the next game,”’ O’Neal said. “That was the whole key of me sitting out, to get over that stage and be comfortable with playing.”
His teammates carried the scoring load. Danny Granger led Indiana with 23 points and Mike Dunleavy added 18 as the Pacers won their second straight and their sixth of eight to remain contenders for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Indiana is three games behind Atlanta for eighth place in the East with eight games to play.
The Pacers went 12-21 in the stretch O’Neal missed, so his teammates were happy to see him return.
“His presence on both ends of the court is huge,” Dunleavy said. “That can’t ever go overlooked. You just know he’s back there on defense, and offensively he’s such a big skilled guy down low. You notice his passing, you notice his finishing. When he’s healthy, he’s pretty good.”
The Pacers haven’t struggled to score—they scored at least 100 points for the ninth straight game, their longest such streak since 1994. But the defense was where coach Jim O’Brien wanted to see improvement, and the Pacers tied for their lowest point total allowed this season.
O’Neal entered the game with 3:12 left in the first quarter. His first basket was a dunk with 11:34 left in the second quarter, and he followed that with a mid-range jumper 13 seconds later.
The Pacers led 59-52 early in the third quarter before Granger converted a 3-point play and Jeff Foster made a mid-range jumper that stayed on the rim for a while before rolling in to give the Pacers a 64-52 lead.
O’Neal entered for a second time with 5:10 left in the third quarter, and he helped the Pacers end the period with a 78-65 lead. He left the game for good with 8:05 left and the Pacers holding an 86-70 edge. The Pacers shot 51 percent in the second half to pull away.
Miami’s offense remained stagnant. The Boston Celtics limited the Heat to 17 baskets Sunday—the fewest in the NBA’s shot-clock era. Before that, Miami scored 69 points Thursday in a loss to the Detroit Pistons. Against Indiana, the Heat shot 42 percent and failed to reach 100 points for the 15th time in 16 games.
“A few of the guys, I had never heard of,” Granger said. “But that’s the kind of teams you have to be really careful of because they’re coming in, they’re playing hard. Those guys are playing for jobs, so I’m glad we took care of business and got the win.”
The Heat have the league’s worst record (13-61), and remained in danger of producing the worst mark in franchise history. The Heat went 15-67 in their inaugural season in 1988-89.
“We’re in no race for the playoffs, so all we can do is get better every time we step on the court and get ready for next year,” Cook said.
The Pacers are running out of time to close in on Atlanta.
“We watch, we play, and we pray that Atlanta loses,” Granger said. “We have to go out and give our best every game the rest of the way.”
The Heat re-signed guard Blake Ahearn and forward Stephane Lasme on Monday, giving each a second 10-day contract. The new deals will allow each player to stay with Miami until the final four games of the season, unless the team chooses to sign either for the remainder of the year. … Cook played for the first time since suffering a concussion on Wednesday against New York. He was listed as a game-time decision on the injury report. … The Pacers have made a franchise-record 676 3-pointers this season.