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GRUDGE MATCH

The Hornets and Pacers, rivals in the central division, meet again tonight in their ongoing battle to prove who's better


Friday February 27, 2004


By John Reid
Staff writer

Ten days ago, the Hornets were better than the Indiana Pacers. They grabbed 18 more rebounds, outscored Indiana by 24 points in the lane and won by 14 points.

Tonight, Hornets guard Darrell Armstrong will be looking to prove that the Feb. 17 victory wasn't a fluke.

"I just feel like we're better than them, and they feel they are a better team than us," said Armstrong, whose team will face the Pacers at New Orleans Arena. "In that last game up there, we played the way we know we can play, and we can do it again."

The Pacers have won three straight since the loss and remain the top team in the Eastern Conference, with an 11-game lead over the Hornets in the Central Division.

The Hornets haven't accomplished what they had hoped after knocking off the Pacers. With 25 games left in the regular season, they still are trying to get on an extended winning streak.

They had lost two straight before defeating the Los Angeles Clippers 99-93 Wednesday night at the Arena.

"We've got the guys who can put the ball in the hole. We got inside play and outside play with (Jamal) Mashburn and B.D. (Baron Davis)," Hornets forward P.J. Brown said. "But I think what's going to tell the story for the rest of the year is whether we're going to play good defense or not."

The Pacers have won two of three games against the Hornets. They squeezed out a 76-75 victory in their last visit to the Arena in November after rookie David West missed a last-second shot.

On Jan. 3, the Pacers beat the Hornets 91-84, with Indiana's Al Harrington and George Lynch getting into an altercation that resulted in their ejections, along with center Jamaal Magloire, who tried to help his teammate.

Indiana is 3-0 at the Arena since the Hornets relocated to New Orleans. Overall, the Pacers have won five of their past seven games against the Hornets, with forward Jermaine O'Neal dominating in the post.

"The Pacers have always been a thorn in our side, and in order for us to beat them, we're going to have to play good individual defense," Davis said.

"We've got to be able to scramble and help each other get some steals. That's how you beat a team like that. We also have to force them to double team Mashburn."

The Hornets remain the fourth seed in the conference, but they are only a game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Pacers have won nine of their past 11, and they're 3-0 since starting forward Ron Artest had surgery on his left thumb to repair torn ligaments.

Harrington has replaced Artest in the starting lineup, and Jonathan Bender, of Picayune, Miss., and Austin Croshere are playing more. In Sunday's 14-point victory against the Utah Jazz, Harrington scored 14 points, Croshere had 15 and Bender 11. In seven straight games, the Pacers' bench has outscored the opponents' reserves.

"Their trademark has been not getting beat two games in a row and certainly not by the team that just beat them the next time out," Hornets coach Tim Floyd said. "We know we're going to have our hands full with a very talented basketball team."

O'Neal leads the Pacers with a 20.5 scoring average. In the Hornets' victory, Floyd put a defender in front of O'Neal and another behind him. That helped limit him to 17 points. Floyd said he plans to use the same coverage because it may be the only way to keep O'Neal from taking over.

In the Pacers' victory in January, O'Neal took over by scoring a team-high 26 points. In November, he scored 24 points on 11-of-24 shooting.

"We have to defend for the entire 48 minutes," said Brown, who will draw the defensive assignment against O'Neal. "It can't be one way for the first half and another way for the second half."

NOTE: Starting shooting guard David Wesley practiced Thursday, but it appears unlikely he will play. His sprained left big toe has caused him to miss 18 consecutive games.

"I'm going to see how it feels over the next couple of days and go from there," Wesley said. "But I'm not playing (tonight)."

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John Reid can be reached at jreid@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3405.