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.