Feeling needed now, O'Neal comes up big for Pacers

Posted: April 23, 2001

It was such an overt act of bravado that the referee had no choice but to call a technical foul on Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal. Long before the Pacers had a reason to taunt the 76ers on Saturday, O'Neal did.

Indiana was trailing by 35-20 early in the second quarter when the first-year Pacer drove the baseline and stuffed the ball one-handed past Matt Geiger and over Tyrone Hill. Upon landing on the hardwood, O'Neal grabbed his yellow-and-blue jersey and yapped at Hill, 11 years his senior.

Forgive O'Neal. At 22, he had waited a lifetime for the moment.

After four torturous seasons in Portland, where he was used sparingly and quibbled with coach Mike Dunleavy, O'Neal has flourished with Indiana. Acquired with Joe Kleine in a trade for Dale Davis last August, the 6-foot-11 O'Neal started at power forward in 80 of the 81 regular-season games in which he played, averaging a career-best 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.

In the Pacers' 79-78 win over the Sixers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Saturday, O'Neal scored 12 points and grabbed a monstrous 20 rebounds in a team-high 46 minutes. He has become what he always wanted to be: indispensable.

"He knows we rely on him," Pacers forward Jalen Rose said. "A lot of players play better when they understand that the team needs them, and he knows we need him. He's just flourishing, knowing we need him. . . .

"I think he played great. Any time you're a young player in this league with an opportunity to play, you've got to try to make the most of it, and that's what he's done."

O'Neal left Eau Claire High School in Columbia, S.C., in 1996. He and Lower Merion's Kobe Bryant were the sixth and seventh players from the United States to enter the NBA draft without logging a minute in college. The Trail Blazers chose O'Neal with the 17th pick in the draft. Though Bryant, who was picked 14th, flourished with the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal floundered with Portland.

He spent the first two seasons as an apprentice, practicing hard but playing little. During the 1998-99 season, with the veteran Blazers pushing toward the playoffs, O'Neal hoped to leave Portland, and nearly did, but a sign-and-trade deal with the Pacers fell through. Playing in just 36 games that season was bad. The next season was even worse.

O'Neal thought he was better than many of the forwards Dunleavy opted to play. His frustration grew, and his resolve wavered.

So when agent Arn Tellem interrupted O'Neal's vacation in Jamaica last August with news that a trade was imminent, O'Neal gladly returned to South Carolina to be with his family.

"This has definitely been a new experience for me, this year," O'Neal said. "It's been a pretty good year for me, and winning the first game of the first round definitely has been the highlight of my year."

The transition at Indiana was eased by having coach Isiah Thomas and his staff come in simultaneously. O'Neal was not the only player having to learn a new system.

In the process, and with guard Reggie Miller "always in my ear," O'Neal improved every aspect of his game - rebounding, blocking shots, scoring, getting the ball to his teammates.

"It's been a big year for me," O'Neal said.

Now, he has his biggest test yet - helping to defend 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA's leading rebounder and a menacing inside presence.

"I like my quickness against him," O'Neal said. "It's going to be a tough first round. It's going to be very physical between the two teams in general."

He has earned Mutombo's praise.

"There aren't many big guys in the Eastern Conference who can carry the torch after we're gone," Mutombo said, "but he's definitely one of them. . . . You can only give him so many opportunities in the post, because he's got so many moves."

So far, O'Neal has not disappointed the Pacers. But it is a long series, which will continue tomorrow at the First Union Center.

"He's been extraordinary," Pacers guard Travis Best said. "The way he was eating up the glass [on Saturday], that's extraordinary, and that's exactly what we needed from him. His athleticism, and his shot-blocking, and his ability to score down low have really meant a lot to us this season."

"He's given us an inside presence that we sorely missed," Rose added. "He's a guy that can score the ball, and drive to the basket, and finish strong, and that's something we're going to need if we're going to advance in this series.

Ashley McGeachy's email address is amcgeachy@phillynews.com.

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