Jermaine O'Neal can play in the Indiana Pacers' game tomorrow against the Detroit Pistons and two more games, but then he'll be in limbo when his case to shorten his 25-game suspension...

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NEW YORK — Jermaine O’Neal can play in the Indiana Pacers’ game tomorrow against the Detroit Pistons and two more games, but then he’ll be in limbo when his case to shorten his 25-game suspension to 15 goes back to court Thursday.

In a setback for the NBA yesterday, federal judge George B. Daniels upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reduce the suspension by granting the NBA Players’ Association a temporary restraining order. Daniels will make a final determination on O’Neal’s future sometime after next week’s hearing on the merits of the case.

The judge said he ruled in O’Neal’s favor because to make him serve a punishment that may not be upheld could have “irreversible consequences for the player, the team, the player’s future and the league itself.”

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“While we disagree with the court’s decision and expect that ultimately Judge Daniels will find that the arbitrator had no authority in this matter, we will, of course, abide by the ruling of the court,” said Russ Granik, the NBA deputy commissioner.

In addition to tomorrow’s game, the first between Indiana and Detroit since the riot at The Palace of Auburn Hills last month, O’Neal is eligible to play against New Orleans on Monday and Charlotte on Wednesday. But the day the attorneys for the league and the union head back to court, O’Neal will have to be on stand-by, with the Pacers playing the Nets that night in New Jersey.

Daniels will decide the central issue of the case next week: whether the melee with fans was considered on-court activity solely under commissioner David Stern’s disciplinary control, or something else that would permit an arbitrator to review the penalty. O’Neal has already served 15 games.

“This is a great Christmas present for Jermaine O’Neal and all Pacers fans,” said Jeffrey Kessler, an NBAPA attorney. “It’s the fair and right thing to do.”

In a 28-page decision Wednesday, arbitrator Roger Kaplan also upheld Ron Artest’s season-long suspension, along with those of Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Anthony Johnson (five games).

NBA attorney Jeffrey Mishkin argued that upholding Kaplan’s ruling for O’Neal would threaten Stern’s authority to control conduct during a game, and ultimately, the league’s image.

The Pacers have gone 5-10 since the riot and will take a 12-12 record into tomorrow’s game. O’Neal, who has been practicing for more than two weeks, will start.

“It will be great for Jermaine to be back on the floor,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “When you’re without your best player for a long time, it’s tough.”


• Los Angeles Lakers F Caron Butler received a one-game suspension from the league for punching New Orleans G Dan Dickau in the stomach.

Butler was ejected from Wednesday night’s game against the Hornets when he took a swing at Dickau after being tripped. The trip didn’t appear to be intentional.

Butler denied trying to punch Dickau and said he didn’t believe he’d receive a suspension. But he will miss tomorrow’s game against former Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat.

“It was just a natural reaction to pull him off my leg,” Butler said. “That was it. I’ve known Dan for a while. He’s a cool dude.”

Dickau, a product of Gonzaga, said he didn’t know why Butler got ejected.

“It was no big deal,” Dickau said. “I kind of got into a crease and didn’t make the right decision and we kind of got tangled up. … It’s too bad he got ejected. I mean, it wasn’t anything intentional.”

• Kings C Brad Miller left Sacramento’s game against the Heat late in the first quarter with a deep cut on his right shin.

Miller returned to start the second half with 15 stitches and a heavy bandage on his shin, which was injured in a collision under the basket with Miami’s Dwyane Wade, who was only shaken up.

• The Atlanta Hawks traded G Jon Barry to the Houston Rockets in exchange for G Tyronn Lue.