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Indiana's O'Neal shows rust in return

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Rasheed Wallace sauntered off the court and
into the exit tunnel, pausing long enough to peel off his headband
and hand it to a youngster wearing the rival's colors.

"Just a kid that asked for a headband, wasn't nothing more than
that," Wallace said.

It was, however, a lot more than an empty gesture.

On an afternoon when many expected the worst in the first
meeting between Indiana and Detroit since their Nov. 19 brawl,
peace prevailed -- as did the Pistons.

Nobody charged into the stands, nobody tossed any beer, nobody
threw punches or chairs. Instead, the most significant thing anyone
hoisted was a 3-pointer by Wallace with 90 seconds left that ended
the Pacers' final hopes in Detroit's 98-93 victory Saturday.

"It was just a regular game, everybody playing the way they
play," Pistons center Ben Wallace said. "It wasn't like we were
out there intimidated, not wanting to touch anybody because it
might start a fight. We were out there to play basketball, and
that's the way it should be."

The game went off with barely a harsh word exchanged by the
teams, whose previous meeting degenerated into one of the worst
melees in the history of U.S. professional sports.

Ben Wallace was booed every time he touched the ball, and fans
behind the Detroit bench let loose with a few words of
angry-but-clean heckling that the players ignored.

A tarp covered most of the exit tunnel, but it was unnecessary.
The sellout crowd behaved, and the small contingent of fans who
yelled at the Pistons as they walked off the court -- none of whom
appeared older than 12 -- wanted nothing more than a hand slap or a
headband.

"I think it was over-hyped," said Reggie Miller, who led
Indiana with 24 points. "We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out
game for 48 minutes. They did all the little things, and that made
the difference.

The only positive for Indiana was the return of Jermaine O'Neal,
whose brawl-related suspension was reduced by an arbitrator from 25
games to 15. O'Neal had 21 points, seven rebounds and five blocks,
but his poor starts to the first and second halves set the tone on
an afternoon when the Pacers too often had to play catch-up.

Richard Hamilton scored 25 points, Chauncey Billups made four
3-pointers and scored 20, Tayshaun Prince added 18 and Rasheed
Wallace had 16 for the Pistons, who have been having their own
problems since the brawl.

The victory moved the defending NBA champions just one game over
.500 (13-12) in a season that has been defined by the Nov. 19 game
against Indiana.

"People realize that was an unfortunate incident and will never
happen again, and now we can get back to playing basketball," said
Pistons coach Larry Brown, whose disgust had grown over the past
five weeks as he continued to be asked about the brawl.

"Closure" was a word being tossed around the Pistons' locker
room after they played one of their better all-around games this
season against the opponent they knocked out of the Eastern
Conference finals in six games.

"We needed this in the worst way," Billups said.

Many of the Indiana fans were decked out in blue and gold Santa
caps, and they booed Ben Wallace -- whose shove of Pacers forward
Ron Artest set off the sequence of events that led to players
fighting with fans in the stands and on the court -- even more than
they booed Rasheed Wallace, who unleashed a string of expletives at
the Indiana fans during last season's playoffs.

"I feed off the booing, I love it when they boo," Rasheed
Wallace said. "Hopefully next time they'll boo much louder."

Artest remains suspended for the rest of the season. Teammate
Stephen Jackson still must serve 14 games of a 30-game penalty.

Players from both teams passed out presents to children before
tip-off. The pregame mood was light despite two fans sitting
directly behind Brown wearing hockey masks and shoulder pads while
waving a sign that read: "Who needs the NHL when the Pacers are
playing the Pistons?" Other fans held signs that read" "Suspend
Stern" and "Indiana Subs vs. Detroit Thugs."

O'Neal missed his first three shots before connecting, but he
ended the first half 2-for-9 and then came out and missed his first
three attempts of the second half. When Carlisle rested his best
players toward the end of the third quarter, Detroit had a 7-0 run
and led 69-61 entering the fourth.

Indiana closed to 69-67 before Detroit responded with a 9-2 run,
and Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace hit jump shots down the stretch to
keep the Pacers at least six points down. Wallace's final 3-pointer
made it 89-80 with 1:29 left, and Indiana got no closer than five
the rest of the way.

"Everybody's happy this game is over. Now we can move on,"
O'Neal said. "Sometimes when you're so excited, it kind of
exhausts you. I think the team, at times, wore out."

Game notes
The Pacers used their 15th different starting lineup. ...
Jeff Foster, who had 16 rebounds, has grabbed at least 10 rebounds
in six consecutive games.