Jermaine O'Neal might be home for Christmas, back on the court with the Indiana Pacers when they play the rival Detroit Pistons. An arbitrator yesterday knocked 10 games off the...

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NEW YORK — Jermaine O’Neal might be home for Christmas, back on the court with the Indiana Pacers when they play the rival Detroit Pistons.

An arbitrator yesterday knocked 10 games off the penalty O’Neal received from commissioner David Stern for fighting with fans during the Nov. 19 Pacers-Pistons brawl. Three other suspensions were upheld.

O’Neal’s suspension was reduced from 25 to 15 games, making him eligible to return Saturday in the nationally televised rematch — but only if the judgment stands up in court.

The league and the union were expected to argue the matter this morning in U.S. District Court.

“We have consistently maintained that the arbitrator has no legitimate role in this matter,” NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said. “While we obviously agree with Mr. Kaplan’s decision upholding virtually all of the suspensions, we don’t agree with his conclusion that the conduct did not occur on the playing court, and we have no choice other than to challenge it in federal court.”

In a 28-page decision, Roger Kaplan upheld Ron Artest’s season-long suspension and the penalties given to Stephen Jackson (30 games) and Anthony Johnson (five games).

In reducing O’Neal’s ban, Kaplan cited O’Neal’s “character, community involvement and citizenship” while also deeming Stern’s punishment “excessive.”

The union had asked for substantial reductions in the penalties during a six-hour arbitration hearing at a Manhattan law office. The NBA declined to participate, saying Kaplan had no jurisdiction to arbitrate penalties for on-court behavior — an area in which the league contends the commissioner has sole discretion.

Kaplan ruled that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, and that Stern had just cause to issue the suspensions he gave to Artest, Jackson and Johnson.

“It is generally understood and indisputable that the riot that ensued was one of the worst, if not the worst, in the history of sports,” Kaplan wrote.

The arbitrator pointed out that O’Neal did not enter the stands and was trying to protect a teammate during the fracas.

O’Neal served the 15th game of his suspension last night.

The NBA has already filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging Kaplan’s authority to hear the grievance, a complaint that remains pending before U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels.

At today’s hearing, the union is expected to ask the judge to issue an order granting immediate enforcement of Kaplan’s ruling, thereby making O’Neal eligible for Saturday’s game.

Shaq’s calf improving

MIAMI — Heat center Shaquille O’Neal participated in a short practice with his team in Sacramento, and said his bruised left calf is improving.

Whether O’Neal plays against the Kings tonight, however, will be a game-time decision.

“He feels some progress has been made,” team spokesman Tim Donovan said.


* Jalen Rose has been dropped from the Toronto Raptors’ starting lineup, and he’s not happy about it.

“I feel like I’ve been shown the door,” said Rose, who was told about the move during a meeting with general manager Rob Babcock and coach Sam Mitchell before last night’s 98-86 victory over Utah. “I’m just waiting to see what happens.”

Eric Williams replaced Rose as the starting small forward. The move came five days after Toronto traded Vince Carter to New Jersey for Williams, Aaron Williams, Alonzo Mourning and two first-round draft picks.

“This isn’t the first time in my career where I was in a situation where I was treated unfairly,” Rose said. “I’ve seen this movie before.”

* Sacramento Kings G Bobby Jackson has a torn ligament in his left wrist that will require surgery and could sideline him for at least three months.

* Charlotte F Gerald Wallace left in the third quarter last night with a sprained right wrist. He did not return.

* The Los Angeles Lakers placed C Vlade Divac on the injured list because of a sore back and activated F Brian Grant.

* Attorneys for Kobe Bryant asked a federal judge to uphold their arguments that other sources were at least partially responsible for emotional injuries allegedly suffered by the woman accusing the Los Angeles Laker of rape.

In court documents, Bryant’s attorneys argued Colorado law allows them to name other people or entities that may be responsible — even if the sources didn’t intend to hurt the woman or if those sources are immune from liability.

Earlier this month, the woman’s attorneys asked the judge to remove Bryant’s arguments from the civil case, saying the Laker was trying to shift responsibility to the media, courts and other outside sources.