INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Jermaine O'Neal opened training camp Tuesday without a familiar aid. And he wasn't sorry about shedding it.
"I haven't practiced without my back brace for three years," O'Neal said. "That's a plus for me."
Instead of playing his fourth straight summer of international basketball in the Olympics this year, the Indiana Pacers' star begged off the team to
rehabilitate an injured left knee and rest his chronically sore back.
The approach seems to have worked.
Aside from a nagging ligament strain in his left foot that appears to be minor, O'Neal returned to Conseco Fieldhouse bigger, healthier and refreshed
after spending some much-needed time off the court.
"I've actually had a chance to get stronger and concentrate on a lot of things that I needed to," O'Neal said. "It's going to help me."
After the Pacers were eliminated by Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle called the upcoming summer a critical one
and urged his players to work hard to improve on the basketball court. But he could tell that his star needed a little time away.
"His body needed that opportunity to take a breather," Carlisle said. "Jermaine's situation is unusual because he's one guy that needed to have a
lighter workload in the summer after three years of rigorous international play. He's got a few dings, but he'll work hard to get through those. This
is a new beginning for him."
And for the Pacers, who aren't shying away from championship aspirations despite the loss to eventual NBA champion Detroit.
"I'm very excited about our chances this year," O'Neal said. "We're not looking at getting to the Eastern Conference finals. We're not even looking at
getting to the championship. We're looking at winning the championship. That's our goal."
A healthy O'Neal will go a long way toward making that a reality. He fought through multiple injuries last season to finish third in the MVP voting
while averaging 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
Those numbers dropped slightly in the playoffs as his body wore down, and he hobbled off the court on a badly sprained left knee after the
season-ending loss to Detroit in Game 6.