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Crucial Week Ahead For JO, Pacers

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The week to come appears to hold what could be a major development in the bottom portion of the Eastern Conference's playoff picture.

From an Associated Press report:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Pacers can use a boost right now and they'll get one soon. 6-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal participated in today's shootaround and says he could play against the New Jersey Nets tonight, although he's more likely to return next week. O'Neal has missed 32 games with a bruised left knee.

As of early Saturday evening, the Pacers sat in tenth in the East, two and a half games behind Atlanta for the eighth and final spot, with the Nets sitting a game ahead of them in ninth.

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It's worth remembering that when O'Neal did play earlier in the year, he wasn't doing his best work.  It seemed that he didn't adjust well to Jim O'Brien's fast-paced system and that he may have been on his way out of Indiana.  It didn't help that the team's record was much better without him than with him early in the season.  Over the course of the last couple of months, however, the Pacers have fallen to 30-43 on the season, and the idea of a savior in the middle would certainly be a welcome one.  Whether JO can fit the system and prove that his problems earlier on were simply injury-related is the question of the week moving forward for Indy.

Further, O'Neal will give himself a chance to market his wares to show that he could still be a valuable acquisition in a potential off-season trade if it doesn't work out in Indiana (and if anyone is willing to take on his huge contract).

A healthy and potent JO could certainly give the Pacers a fighting chance.  Their schedule is quite favorable the rest of the way.  Of nine remaining games, five are against Miami, Milwaukee (two), Charlotte and the Knicks, with one more coming against the target that is Atlanta.