By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- For a few moments, Pacers coach Jim O'Brien imagined an entire season with his current rotation.
He thought about Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, who are having career years and both averaging 19 points per game. He considered Troy Murphy, a forward who is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds the past 11 games. He's pleased with rebounding force Jeff Foster and new point guard Flip Murray, who is coming off a double-double.
Then, there's the bench. Point guard Travis Diener has emerged as a game-changer with his speed, unselfishness and perimeter shooting, and O'Brien says Marquis Daniels has played his best basketball of the season during the past month.
A healthy Jermaine O'Neal playing well in limited minutes off the bench doesn't hurt.
"If you play that eight-man rotation over 82 games, I think that we could win 45 to 50 games," O'Brien said after Thursday's practice.
But O'Neal missed 33 straight games with a bone bruise on his left knee, and Murray only joined the team after it became clear that regular point guard Jamaal Tinsley wasn't returning from a knee injury.
The injuries made it difficult for the team to find a rhythm, so instead of being locked into the playoffs, the Pacers are fighting to extend their season. They are two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with four games left.
The Pacers start the stretch Friday at Philadelphia. They host Charlotte on Saturday, are at Washington Monday and close the regular season Wednesday at home against New York.
Indiana (34-44) has won nine of 12, and that success has helped the players relax, despite their circumstances. They were attentive, yet loose during practice.
"I think at a certain point in an NBA season, guys and coaches are so fatigued that they don't feel pressure," O'Brien said. "They know they have to win. I don't spend a lot of time talking about how important it is."
O'Neal is averaging 8.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in the five games since he's returned, playing 19 minutes per contest. He's taken advantage of the respect teams have gained for his teammates, shooting 47 percent from the field mostly against single coverage.
"I think when teams prepare for us, teams are aware that we are third in the league in made 3-point shots, and that he's a good passer," O'Brien said. "He sees people."
With O'Neal in the lineup, the Pacers can do the things team president Larry Bird envisioned when he committed to O'Brien and his up-tempo offense.
"Larry has always wanted to put guys around Jermaine that could space the court and be able to shoot the basketball," O'Brien said. "We have that."
O'Neal's greatest influence has been on defense. The Pacers have allowed 94.6 points per game the past five contests, compared to their season average of 105.4.
Another key to Indiana's resurgence has been strong point guard play. The Pacers are 9-4 with Murray as a starter since they picked up the free agent. Diener has 60 assists to nine turnovers since moving behind Murray into a reserve role.
"I think they're two different point guards," O'Neal said after Tuesday's win over Atlanta. "I think Flip is more physical, a more aggressive big guard who can take you to the post, looking to try to dunk on you. I think Travis is more of a tempo type of a point guard who tries to push it up the court, find open guys and also make a lot of long-range threes. The combination of both has been good for our team."
Foster averages 6.4 points and 8.7 rebounds this season, but those totals are up to 11.6 points and 12.3 rebounds during Indiana's three-game winning streak. He's shooting 68 percent from the floor in those games.
O'Brien said Foster hasn't become a focal point in the offense, but he's put himself in favorable positions by passing well and taking advantage of posts who don't want to chase him. Now, teams that once blatantly left him unguarded pay for sagging off him.
"As guys move and his guy moves with him, he's gotten a lot of open 17, 18-foot jump shots, and with his feet set, he's a good shooter," O'Brien said. "He knows that, and he knows we have confidence in him."
The Pacers hope their all-around improvement continues because they feel they need to win out to make the postseason.
"We have to get it done," O'Neal said. "We're playing for a purpose here. In order to get into the playoffs, we have to do what we're supposed to do and get some help."