<
>

Suspension served, O'Neal's relief evident

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Mentally drained from a court
battle and slowed by an illness, Jermaine O'Neal showed that being
on a basketball court has a way of making everything right.

Hours after a judge ruled that he didn't have to serve the final
10 games of a suspension, O'Neal scored 31 points to lead the
Indiana Pacers to a 96-83 win over the New Jersey Nets on Thursday
night.

"It was somewhat a relief," O'Neal said after his long day
that started with an appearance in a New York City federal
courthouse and ended in an arena in New Jersey.

"It was something I didn't have to think about," the All-Star
forward added. "I thought about my teammates more than anything.
I've been back for three games and we're getting that family
atmosphere and starting to trust each other."

With O'Neal back in the lineup, the Pacers have won three
straight games, matching their longest streak since the Nov. 19
brawl against Detroit that led to multiple suspensions.

O'Neal got a 25-game suspension, but an arbitrator reduced it to
15 games last week allowing him to return to action. U.S. District
Judge George B. Daniels upheld that decision in New York about
three hours before the Pacers and Nets took the court.

"Since he got back from his little suspension, he's been making
those shots," said Pacers center Jeff Foster, who had 16 points
and a season-high 16 rebounds. "He's basically unstoppable. He's
made them the last three games. Knowing now that he has the weight
lifted off his shoulders, we expect great things from him the rest
of the way."

Austin Croshere added 17 points for Indiana, which spoiled Vince
Carter's New Jersey debut in a Nets' uniform. His appearance drew a
sellout crowd of 20,174, a Nets' home record.

"I felt like I let them down," said Carter, who had 25 points,
eight rebounds and a couple of highlight dunks. "I didn't play
well. I think I was trying too hard."

In contrast, O'Neal seemed relaxed on the court, despite not
having eaten since Wednesday afternoon because of an illness. After
missing his first shot, he hit five in a row to help the Pacers
grab the lead for good in the first quarter.

In a span between the second and third quarters, he missed eight
straight shots and once sat down next to two young children at
courtside to laugh about his woes.

However, when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter,
O'Neal took over and scored nine points.

After Richard Jefferson scored to cut the Pacers' lead to 66-65,
O'Neal converted a three-point play to spark a 15-4 spurt that gave
Indiana an 81-69 lead. O'Neal, who fouled out in the closing
minutes, also had two other baskets in the run.

"Tonight he played a monster game, and there were a lot of guys
who stepped up in critical roles," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said
of O'Neal.

Jefferson and Rodney Buford added 20 apiece. Jason Kidd had 11
rebounds, 10 assists and four points.

Jamaal Tinsley, who missed his first nine shots from the field,
had 15 points for the Pacers, including a 3-pointer in the deciding
run.<
^Notes@: The Nets will donate a percentage of all tickets sold over
the next two weeks to UNICEF to aid those in Asia affected by the
tsunamis. ... Croshere hit a running 3-pointer at the end of the
first quarter, but a review showed it came just after the horn.