The playoffs don't start until late April. But when Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal played his fourth game Monday after returning from injury, he stepped onto a Miami Heat court that was bathed in playoff atmosphere.
Making a few Jermaine points
He faced signs and a crowd directly mocking him. And he soon faced a Heat team not much friendlier either, getting in an spirited tangle with Udonis Haslem, who ended up shouting and gesticulating, ejected and shirtless, while O'Neal watched in relative calm.
Welcome back, Jermaine.
The spirited play. The physicality. If you love basketball, you love seeing that kind of playoff atmosphere where teams are geared up and every possession is magnified.
Because of his importance to the hopes of Indiana, every move by O'Neal here was magnified, too, whether an airball or dunk. He fouled out in the game's final minutes after scoring 17 points and grabbing seven rebounds. The game finished with Miami making its usual second half rally, dominating the boards and posting a 96-91 win.
But right now, I don't see this team having the weapons to make a deep playoff run.
There are other factors that have lifted Pacers' hopes in recent days. Jamaal Tinsley and Peja Stojakovic are playing healthy, and they now send out roughly the same team -- with one important change -- that coming into the season was touted as a title contender.
However, the deal sending Ron Artest to Sacramento for Stojakovic was a trade of defense for offense. The playoffs are when the game gets more organized and disciplined, with a premium put on defending, rebounding and passing. That was Artest. But if Stojakovic is not making his shots, he can be a liability.
Looking at the Eastern Conference standings now, the Pacers (35-34) would slide into the sixth-seed, which would put them up against Jason Kidd and the Nets, who are playing their best basketball of the season on the road to the No. 3 seed. Very tough.
If they fell to No. 7, they would match up against the Heat, which would also be tough, despite their recent history of success against Miami.
I think their best chance would be to move up from their current spot into the fifth-seed held by the Wizards (35-33), which would match them against the Cavaliers. With the Pacers' experience, I think they would have enough against Cleveland.
O'Neal's on a crash course now. Are the last 13 games enough to return him to form on the low post?
That's the question. More games like tonight will be fun to watch.
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Suns players look on from the bench as the reserves finish up. The Nets beat the Suns, 110-72. Phoenix aims to put this loss in the rearview mirror with Tuesday's game at Milwaukee.
Trish (Albany, NY): Once you said that you don't agree that a player makes another player better, it was a couple months ago in reference to Steve Nash. I disagree, but I love to be enlightened. You didn't go into any details when you said that and suggested you may write about it someday. Could you please let me know how, in your eyes, a player's play doesn't affect the others on his team enough to correctly rule that player to be crucial to the other's success?
John Hollinger: What I said was that the "great players make their teammates better" argument seems to be hogwash. If you wanted to prove it, you would have an extremely difficult time. Take any player -- Nash, Stockton, Jordan, Kidd, whomever -- and take all his teammates, and compare their year before and year after numbers (adjusting for playing time, pace, etc.), and you'll find almost no difference.
VM (NY): You really believe that Shawn Marion would score the same amount of points without all the assists from Nash? Just doesn't make sense.
John Hollinger: Really? He went from 19.0 with Marbury to 19.4 with Nash.
Eric, NY: Marion with Marbury 44% shooter Marion with Nash 50% shooter.
John Hollinger: Again, was trying to provide a brief snippet here instead of a detailed analysis. Marion improved from 44.0 to 47.6 in his first year with Nash, assists cut nearly in half, turnovers went down, took more 3s but made less of them. Overall his PER went from 19.92 to 21.76.
• Wizards coach Eddie Jordan bumped center Brendan Haywood from the starting lineup in favor of Etan Thomas, who had four points in 17 minutes. Haywood played just six minutes. ... Before the game, the Warriors signed G Will Bynum to a second 10-day contract. The former Georgia Tech star led the D-League in scoring before his callup on March 17. ... Warriors rookie F Chris Taft will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery Tuesday to fix a herniated disc in his back.
-- The Associated Press
The Nets looked anything but tired in handing the Suns a 38-point defeat.
AP Photo/Steve Mitchell
Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, and Miami's Shaquille O'Neal leap at the opening tipoff. Later, Shaq would briefly have his hand on JO's throat during an airing of grievances.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Suns guard Steve Nash, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, went 0-for-5 from the field in 26 minutes in a blowout loss to the Nets, and became just the third reigning MVP to be held scoreless in a game in which he played at least 10 minutes.
-- ESPN Research
For the first time in his professional head-coaching career, Larry Brown has suffered 29 losses over a span of 35 games. That's what his Knicks have done since the end of a six-game winning streak that started the new year. Brown's San Antonio Spurs lost 28 of 35 games in 1988-89, his previous low.
• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias
J.J. Redick, SG, Duke: Redick's worst nightmare happened on Thursday. Not only did Duke suffer an early exit at the hands of LSU, but his fantastic senior season came into serious question with NBA scouts after the athletic LSU backcourt forced Redick into his worst game (3-for-18 from the field) of the year. This wasn't just a case of Redick's shot being a little off. He was horrible, and LSU freshman guard Garrett Temple drove him crazy. His length and athleticism were too much for Redick. He just couldn't get clean looks at the basket.
One game shouldn't taint a fantastic senior season -- but what every NBA scout that I talked to noted was that Temple is the type of athlete Redick will have to play against every night in the NBA. With that said, his stock isn't sliding as much as some might think. Scouts also understand that Redick won't be a star in the NBA and coaches won't be devising defenses to stop him the way LSU did.
If Redick gets on a good team with a low-post presence, he should be an excellent sniper in the NBA. If asked to do what he did for Duke this year, it's going to get ugly. Look for him to fall in the range we've predicted for him most of the year: somewhere between 13 and 22 come draft night.