O'Neal scores 16 points in 23 minutes
MIAMI -- All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal returned to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, more than a month after he injured his right shoulder so severely that both he and the team feared his season was over.
O'Neal scored 16 points in the Pacers' 84-80 loss to the Miami Heat. He shot 4-for-15 from the field, and played 23 minutes.
"I felt rusty but I thought I was strong enough to compete," O'Neal said. "I'm at 90 percent right now."
Indiana made the move about an hour before tip-off Sunday. The Pacers cleared a roster spot by placing guard Jamaal Tinsley on the injured list with a bruised left foot.
"I'm not worried about integrating a guy who's an MVP candidate back in the lineup," said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle. "It shouldn't be a problem."
The injury, originally diagnosed as a partial dislocation, happened March 3 when O'Neal's right arm was pulled back by Denver's Francisco Elson on a drive to the basket.
O'Neal -- who told reporters on March 18 that the injury would need "six or seven months" to fully heal -- missed the Pacers' next 22 games.
"This was a very difficult injury," Carlisle said. "We've been through a lot with it and we just want to make sure he's ready. It's his decision."
In his absence, Indiana went 15-7 and climbed from a sub-.500 mark back into contention for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Sunday's loss left the Pacers two games behind Washington for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"You don't want to come back to a situation where you're breaking the rhythm of the team," said O'Neal, whose scoring average of 24.5 points per game leads anyone on the Pacers' active roster; the suspended Ron Artest averaged 24.6 in seven games. "I don't want to be the chink that makes the machine fall apart."
O'Neal played in just 41 of Indiana's first 79 games. Besides missing 22 because of the shoulder, he was suspended for 15 games for his role in a brawl with fans at Detroit in November.
Carlisle said it was important to get O'Neal worked back into the team's rotation, especially with the playoffs looming. And his return was a welcome sight for teammates.
"We've got to have an inside presence and J.O. is our inside presence," guard Stephen Jackson said. "To see him back in there gives us another shot of life for the playoffs."
Tinsley, who hasn't played since Feb. 23 because of the sore foot, is averaging a career-high 15.4 points this season, plus 6.4 assists for the Pacers. His availability for the playoffs, which begin next weekend, is uncertain.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press