Jermaine O'Neal thinks his team should be among the contenders in the Eastern Conference. The All-Star forward gets his first chance to back up his claim as the Indiana Pacers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.
O'Neal, who had eight points and seven rebounds as the East was routed 153-132 by the West in Las Vegas on Sunday, leads a Pacers (28-24) team that is fourth in the Central Division but only five games behind front-running Detroit, which also leads the East.
The lack of a dominant team in the East has prompted O'Neal to believe there's no reason the Pacers can't make up that deficit.
"You're always one good week away from being at the top of the conference," he said on the Pacers official Web site. "A team like Detroit has really seemed to have found its way; we want to tap into that area where they're at because everybody else is going back and forth right now.
"We've got to really be focused on winning the games we're supposed to win and really challenge the teams that are quote-unquote the top teams in the league and really try to beat those guys."
O'Neal has done his part in two games against the Bucks (19-35) this season, notching double-doubles while averaging 23.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.0 blocks in two victories.
Indiana has won four in a row at Conseco Fieldhouse against Milwaukee, including a 116-99 victory Jan. 4, 2005, in which O'Neal had a career-high 55 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Indiana won its final two games before the All-Star break, including a 114-104 victory over Memphis last Wednesday. O'Neal had 23 points and nine rebounds, while Marquis Daniels added 18 points off the bench and continued his strong play of late.
Daniels, who missed seven games with knee tendinitis from Jan.28-Feb. 9, has averaged 13.6 points in his last five games - all Indiana wins. After watching Daniels slowly adjust in his first season after playing three with Dallas, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has been pleased with his recent play.
"We knew he was a good player," Carlisle told the team's site. "Over the last three or four weeks, he's one of the guys that can generate easy baskets for us in transition and when we have to execute in the halfcourt because he just has that unusual ability to get the ball places. He's a very important guy for us right now."
The Bucks welcomed leading scorer Michael Redd back to the lineup on Tuesday, but their struggles continued with an 84-83 home loss to the Pistons. Redd started and shot 7 of 18 from the field and finishing with 17 points as Milwaukee lost its fifth straight game and 18th in its last 21 overall.
"That was to be expected," said Redd, who missed 20 games with a strained patellar tendon in his left knee. "I only played 29 minutes. It felt like 50. It's going to come back to me. I'm not worried about it."
Redd is averaging 27.4 points in 34 games this season but has not played well at Conseco Fieldhouse, averaging only 17.9 points in 10 games while shooting 39.9 percent.
He has not shot more than 50 percent from the field in a game there since Oct. 31, 2003, a span of six games.
Indiana rallied from sizable deficits to win the previous two games between the teams this season, scoring the last 14 points in the final 3:06 of a 93-88 victory Nov. 21 and erased a 17-point deficit to win 102-100 three days earlier.