INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal expects to return to the court soon. He wasn't quite ready Friday.
O'Neal sat out his 33rd straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee after saying during shootaround that he might play.
``I'm OK,'' the six-time All-Star said after the shootaround. ``It's just a matter of them feeling like I can complete a game.''
O'Neal is of the league's premier interior defenders, and the Pacers could use him for the stretch run. They entered Friday's game against the New Jersey Nets sitting 2 1/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference with 10 games left.
O'Neal averaged 15.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 33 games before leaving in the first quarter Jan. 16 against Golden State.
He had surgery last April to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee. O'Neal came back to start this season but occasionally played through swelling and pain. Before the Pacers announced his most recent injury, O'Neal said the knee hadn't fully healed from the procedure.
The Pacers rank seventh in the league in scoring, with Danny Granger averaging 18.9 points per game and Mike Dunleavy averaging 18.7. But they're 27th in scoring defense, so O'Neal knows where he's needed.
``Obviously, I'm going to be a little bit rusty,'' he said. ``I'm not looking to go in there and score a lot of points, I'm going in there to help defensively.''
O'Neal has missed 132 games the past four seasons with injuries, illnesses or suspensions, and often has played hurt. Last season, his healthiest of the past four, he averaged 19.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
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