INDIANAPOLIS -- It's not a guarantee. It's not even a prediction. It's provocative, though.
"I think," O'Neal says, "that Jeff is more physical than Brad."
Jeff is Jeff Foster. Brad is Brad Miller. Foster is the guy who has been asked to replace a two-time All-Star and keep O'Neal from being suffocated by the Wallaces. Miller is that two-time All-Star and a member now of the Sacramento Kings because the Pacers felt they couldn't afford the luxury of paying him $68 million after giving O'Neal a max contract.
It was only a small element of O'Neal's dissatisfaction last summer, compared to the firing of Isiah Thomas that enraged him, but the Pacers' franchise player wasn't thrilled when Indiana participated in a sign-and-trade with Sacramento and San Antonio to ensure that it wouldn't lose Miller without compensation. He wanted to keep playing with Miller, whose ability to score from the outside helped open up the inside.
Almost a year later, O'Neal's sentiments have turned dramatically. Even though the big man acquired to succeed Miller almost never plays -- Scot Pollard -- O'Neal loves his new tag-team partner.
"I'm probably one of his biggest fans," O'Neal said. "I think Jeff and Jamaal (Tinsley) have been the quiet MVPs of our team."
Foster was certainly a quiet killer in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. In one crunch-time stretch, he scored on a drive, tipped out a critical offensive rebound and set a textbook pick to free Reggie Miller for a game-turning triple.
The layup was Foster's only basket of the game. The triple was Miller's only field goal.
"I just do what I do," Foster said.
In a sentence, that amounts to chasing rebounds and setting screens and guarding centers for as long as he can so O'Neal can save his strength for fourth quarters. None of that is going to get Foster on an All-Star team, even in the East, but he has won over O'Neal and has flustered the Pistons already.
That's because, after acquiring Rasheed Wallace, it was believed that Detroit held a significant advantage over Indiana on the front line. Even O'Neal saw the acquisition as an attempt to gang up on him, saying: "I knew that's what they (were) trying to do."
This series will determine if Foster and the Pacers can flummox the experts. Conventional wisdom dictates Sheed must dominate Foster. With an assist to the case of plantar fasciitis that has clearly limited Sheed's mobility and aggression, Foster thinks he can prevent that from happening.
The Pacers would be thrilled to see more games like they received from Foster on May 15, when he erupted for 20 points and 16 rebounds in a Game 5 victory over Miami. Realistically, though, they will settle for more games like Saturday's Game 1 against the Pistons, when Foster's good defense throughout and 90-second burst of heady play at the finish helped Indiana overturn deficits early and late.
O'Neal, incidentally, will tell you that he'll profit in this series just by having Foster run the floor aggressively, making one Wallace or the other chase after him.
"I was sincerely sad that we weren't able to keep him, but I knew that I'd have an opportunity this year."
Foster and Miller remain close friends, to the point that Foster called Miller before Saturday's game, wondering if he'd be there as a Conseco Fieldhouse spectator after Sacramento was eliminated in the second round. Miller was driving back to Indiana through Nebraska at the time.
"He had some comments about my 20 and 16," Foster said with a grin.
O'Neal still counts Miller among his pals as well, but his growing admiration for Foster leads to more interesting analysis. O'Neal says that Foster, who carries a trim 242 pounds on his 6-foot-11 frame, is actually more of a banger type than the banger who left.
"I think we're more physical (as a tandem) than last year," O'Neal insists. "I think Jeff is tougher than Brad, but Brad is the better offensive player. So it's two totally different people."
Different results, too. Although Foster has scored just 36 points in the playoffs -- total -- when you exclude his breakout game, this group of Pacers has finally achieved something. After three consecutive first-round exits, they're three wins away from the NBA Finals.
Foster was there largely as a bench ornament in 2000, when the Pacers relied on veterans to reach the title round. On this team he's a critical component, along with Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender, who were also little more than observers back then.
It helps that Foster and O'Neal started together for a half-season before Miller's arrival midway through the 2000-01 season.
"Jermaine and I had some footing already," he said.
But the bigger help is Foster's attitude.
"Since late in high school, I've been a guy that crashes the glass pretty hard," he said. "I did it in college. I knew that would be my ticket into the league."
Said O'Neal, tossing in one more bold claim: "(Foster) reminds me a lot of Dennis Rodman. I think that's why he wears the No. 10 (Rodman's original number in Detroit). He idolized the way (Rodman) went after it, the intensity that he played at and the way he helped his team. You've got to have one of those guys on every championship team."