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12-22-2004, 05:32 PM
By Marc Stein
Only three more sniping days 'til Christmas for Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Only three more days, too, until the Detroit at Indiana undercard. That may be the day Jermaine O'Neal returns -- unless the commissioner's original ruling stands up in federal court, in which case it's 21 days after Saturday until the Pacers get O'Neal back from suspension.

Despite fight night, the Pacers will welcome O'Neal back with open arms -- as early as Saturday.
"It seems like a million years away to me," said Pacers president Donnie Walsh earlier this week, referring to O'Neal's return.

And you can understand the sentiment. For most of us, a month has elapsed rather quickly (and quietly) since The Malice of Auburn Hills. As predicted in this cyberspace from the start, no matter how ugly and scary and shameful the melee was, fans have not stopped going to and watching the games. Once again we say that it was not the darkest day in league history. Once again we argue that initial wave of moral outrage never lasts as long as you think it will at the moment of impact. It was not a doomsday, just as the baseball playoffs did not suffer one whit after a Texas Rangers pitcher threw a chair into the stands.

Of course, for Walsh and the short-handed Pacers, time marches slowly. For what seems like forever, they have been playing without O'Neal , Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest. Meanwhile, they've had to deal with myriad injuries and some serious inexperience among the fill-ins.

But guess what?

They awoke Wednesday at 12-11, right there with Detroit. They're just 5-9 since the brawl, but the rest of the December schedule, Christmas aside, is pretty inviting.

They're simply a resilient team, especially considering Indy's status as the biggest long-term loser in this mess.

"I don't think this team has given up," Walsh said. "We'll survive these suspensions, and if we can get our team back then I think we'll contend."

What follows is a look at that team -- where it was and where it's going -- from several different angles:


When this is all over, I think we can make a run. This team hasn't changed any of its goals.
Pacers president Donnie Walsh
One of the harder aspects of the brawl fallout for the Pacers to stomach comes when they remember how good life was until the final minute of that fateful fight night.

The win at Detroit launched Indy to a 7-2 start in spite of numerous health issues. It followed a victory at mighty Minnesota just days earlier in which O'Neal, plagued by a sore foot, had to come off the bench, a game that came just a day after Artest had stunned the franchise by suggesting he might want to take the whole season off to promote an album he co-produced and to spend more time with his family.

In spite of the latest Artest flap and Indy's spate of injuries, the Pacers were looking awfully dangerous early. The team believes it was one play away from the NBA Finals last spring -- Tayshaun Prince's sprint and swat of a Reggie Miller layup having helped turned the conference finals for Detroit -- and which seemed inarguably stronger than it did last season.

"After those two performances [vs. Minnesota and Detroit]," Walsh said, "I thought we were pretty good."


Now? The Pacers' roster was decimated by the suspensions, to the point that, coupled with various injuries, there have been games where Carlisle has been forced to coach without six to nine of the players he expected to have available. The first two fill-ins they signed, furthermore, were subsequently deemed ill-fitting and have likewise been replaced: Britton Johnsen and Tremaine Fowlkes were brought in and then waived to make room for Marcus Haislip and Michael Curry, who played for Carlisle in Detroit.

However ...

Look at the standings. If there's any solace for the team in this mess, it's that Stern's punishment of the Pacers didn't include a mandate that Indy be shipped to the Western Conference. Because they're still in the East, the Pacers haven't slipped very far out of contention, not even after a recent seven-game losing streak that followed the brief three-win honeymoon immediately after the brawl.

Look at the standings again. The Pacers, as of Wednesday morning, were a mere two games back of Cleveland in the Central Division. Cleveland, not Detroit.

Which means the original goal -- winning the Central, to ensure homecourt advantage in a playoff rematch with the Pistons -- remains intact.

Detroit, remember, has struggled since the brawl almost as much as Indiana has, even though the Pistons' penalties were essentially limited to Ben Wallace's six-game suspension.

It must also be said that the progress made in December by Pacers youngsters Fred Jones and David Harrison -- along with the long-serving Jamaal Tinsley -- suggests that Indy will be even deeper than anticipated in the season's second half.

"The one thing I am happy about is that this team has really held the fort," Walsh said. Speaking specifically about Tinsley, Walsh added: "He's shown a lot of things he can do, as a scorer, that he doesn't do when he's out there with the full team."


If Stephen Jackson returns to action with the same fiery attitude he took into the stands, the Pacers should be cooking.
By the end of January, Indiana will have both O'Neal and Jackson back and still have a whopping 39 games left on the schedule.

The Pacers should also have plenty of pent-up, us-against-the-world fury to unleash on the rest of the league.

Thus it's probably Detroit, not Indiana, that should really be worried this Christmas, with the Pistons having squandered a nice opportunity to gain some serious ground on their rivals.

The assumption going into the season held that Detroit and Indiana, in some order, would post the top two records in the East. In that scenario, the teams were thus destined to meet in the second round of the playoffs, because realignment dictates that top three playoff seeds are reserved for the three division winners. In that scenario, then, winning the Central would guarantee the homecourt edge in a second-round showdown.

In the new scenario, Miami is the favorite to post the East's best record, barring any kind of long-term injury to Shaquille O'Neal or Dwyane Wade. And Detroit's ongoing malaise leaves the Pistons with only a handful of games, at best, in which to amass any sort of edge on the Pacers before their O'Neal returns.

Indiana has 11 games left, as of Wednesday, before O'Neal's original suspension ends. Detroit has 12 in the same span ... and a fretting coach.

"Yeah, I think so," Brown says when asked if he's worried. "We're not playing great.

"I think there's a lot of factors. Sometimes we forget why we won a championship and how we went about it. The new rules (officials calling games tighter on the perimeter) have kind of impacted us a little bit. We've had injuries and that terrible fight six weeks ago has kind of hung over heads for quite a while. We've had a hard time shaking that.

"Obviously it's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen or been part of.... My son doesn't even want to go back to a game. And then wherever we go, it's news. A month after the fight we go to Memphis for the first time or Dallas for the first time and that's all they want to talk about. And it has affected our team. I think a lot of people look at us differently.

"It only lasted for five minutes, but it seems like it lasted for hours," Brown continued. "It wouldn't end and it hasn't ended."

You can expect more lamenting from Larry when O'Neal does come back, having rested up after playing hurt throughout training camp and the season's first three weeks, and Detroit gets a clearer sense of the opportunity it squandered.

Even without Artest, Donnie Walsh (right) likes where the Pacers are going.
"When this is all over," Walsh said, "I think we can make a run."


Yes, Walsh meant even without Artest, who's eligible to return to practice even if, as expected, commissioner David Stern upholds his own suspension of Artest (an arbitrator has already upheld the suspension). The Pacers are simply deciding how they want to work him back in; Artest's usual reps with the starting lineup, for example, wouldn't make sense if the suspension were to be upheld for the rest of the season.

"He's not estranged from our team," Walsh said. "He's part of it and will remain part of it."

Without its best defender, it's difficult to envision Indy winning a championship. That said, the Eastern equation hasn't changed much.

Assuming both teams are healthy, the Pacers will be deeper than the Heat in the playoffs, even without Artest. The Cavs are growing up fast, but LeBron James hasn't seen a minute of the playoffs yet, so it's tough to imagine a thin Cleveland squad, in LeBron's first postseason run, challenging the East's top three.

Which leaves Detroit. That's the conference opponent against which Indiana would obviously miss Artest most. Of course, that applies only if the Pistons become the Pistons again. Detroit has its own depth woes, ranking last at present in bench scoring at only 16.6 ppg. Indiana, even in its depleted state, is getting close to 20 a game from its reserves.

"The way I look at it is, all these (suspended) guys are right around 25 years old," Walsh said. "Eventually they're all coming back to the team at some point.

"This team hasn't changed any of its goals."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

12-22-2004, 05:47 PM
"He's not estranged from our team," Walsh said. "He's part of it and will remain part of it."

"The way I look at it is, all these (suspended) guys are right around 25 years old," Walsh said. "Eventually they're all coming back to the team at some point.

I think this tells me the Pacers aren't ready to give up on Ron Artest, they could feel his value is still to high and there not going to sell him down the river for a bag of chips.

Now I like Ron as a player and defintely was disappointed , but maybe this is what Ron needs to wake up and smell the coffee so to speak. I hope Ron realizes that if there is another incident most likey he will be banned for life we all know Ron is a great player and I don't think anyone doubts his desire to be a winner.

I really don't think we can win a championship without Artest but I guess we will find out that answer soon enough if everything holds it's course.

12-22-2004, 05:53 PM
Interesting take Sauce. I read the article the opposite way. It seemed like Walsh was saying that we don't ned Artest and don't really want him.

12-22-2004, 06:25 PM
and that terrible fight six weeks ago has kind of hung over heads for quite a while. We've had a hard time shaking that.

Oh, BOO FREAKIN' HOO! Yeah, YOUR team had it SOO rough after the fight. :mad:

12-22-2004, 06:54 PM
My take was closer to SauceMaster's... my feelings on Ron are going to totally depend on what he does with himself during the suspension. If he can be a good teammate, reliable, keep himself in shape, etc, then I think this could really be a "growing up" time for him.

Because while I fully disagree with almost 100% of what Jay says about him, there's no question that Ron has some growing up to do. If this doesn't get the point across, then nothing will.