Overconfidence is a funny thing. Teams can pay all the lip service they want to opponents before each game, but in the heat of battle, when the unconscious takes over, it's hard to not lower expectations of an opponent whose record and/or personnel suggest inferiority.
It is that sort of subliminal letdown that has allowed the Indiana Pacers to go 9-7 in the month of March and keep their playoff hopes alive. Currently two games up on Philadelphia and seeded seventh in the East, Indiana is just a half-game behind the Cavaliers and three in back of Chicago, two teams they'll host at home before the regular season ends.
The Pacers don't prey on opponents lulled into a false sense of security by an Indiana roster that has lost four of its five starters for long stretches this season -- and will be without the services of Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley for the rest of it; rather, the Pacers take advantage of opponents' eagerness. Teams are so intent upon beating the Pacers by 20, that they forget the little things that help them win by two. So while a Miami Heat club abandons its game plan in anticipation of blitzing the Pacers off the court, coach Rick Carlisle has his squad walking the ball up the floor, playing possession by possession while carefully reading situations and not getting ahead of themselves.
Though playing out his final season, Reggie Miller again has become the team's leader, partly because he never lacks for confidence, party because he's healthy but mainly because of his status as an all-time Pacers great. His teammates may not be in awe of his abilities (Has anyone ever been in awe of Miller's game?), but they can't help but feed off the derring-do of a man who has missed the playoffs just three times in his Hall of Fame career. Miller still provides his team an edge, allowing them to assume that any close contest heading into the game's final minutes is Indiana's to lose, because Carlisle will draw up an involved series of screens, and Miller will no doubt nail the clutch jumper. That's the fun of playing with a living highlight reel.
While the Pacers rely on Miller for spiritual guidance, they rely on Stephen Jackson for offensive leadership, largely because he is the only healthy Pacer that can consistently create his own look at the basket. Indiana doesn't take many bad shots, but as a team, Jackson takes enough for the whole lot of them. As such, this season hasn't done much for the team's confidence in Jackson, even without calling into question his 30-game suspension.
Jackson doesn't have the quickness to play against most shooting guards. Though he's proven to be a consistent scorer (18.6 points a game this season), one has to wonder how he'll adapt to playing alongside fellow lead-foots such as Artest and Tinsley next season.
But Artest's return is paramount. O'Neal, and even Tinsley in some spots, produces better statistics, but Artest is clearly the Pacers' most important player. Off-court issues aside, Artest's ability to confuse opponents (and his own teammates, apparently) on both sides of the ball allows the Pacers to pull off runs and pull away from other teams. Few players in this league can take over games like Artest, whose instinctive decisions on offense bring to mind the Sugar Ray Richardson or even John Havlicek. Unfortunately, his Mitch "Blood" Green impersonation has him on the shelf until next October.
With Artest out, Tinsley was asked to act as the straw that stirred the drink, and for a while, he succeeded. Playing the best basketball of his career, Tinsley took on more of a scorer's role while still running Carlisle's slow-down offense. With O'Neal, Jackson and Artest suspended, and various Pacers missing games to injury during December and January, Tinsley kept things together. Leading a cast of misfits and a bench that rarely suited five players, Tinsley managed to piece together a 13-21 record with the Pacers between the brawl and a foot sprain that effectively derailed his season on Jan. 31. Hardly a stellar mark, to be sure, but enough to keep the team in the playoff race.
Tinsley has played just 40 combined minutes since his sprain, but the Pacers have actually improved since then, even with O'Neal playing in just half of the games. Jackson has undoubtedly helped, but Anthony Johnson has engineered Indiana's 17-11 record in February and March as Tinsley's stand-in. Entering the league in 1997 as an unheralded free agent out of Charleston College, Johnson showed a knack for defense early on, but a screwball jumper and limited athleticism drove him from team to team, included a stop in the NBDL, before receiving a surprising four-year contract from the Pacers last summer.
Though Tinsley is one of the best defensive point guards in the game, there has been little drop-off with Johnson around, and more possessions to exploit because of Johnson's refusal to turn the ball over. After taking 15 seconds to walk the ball up court, Johnson makes entry passes into the post from inside the arc, which isn't the sort of spacing teams are used to. Because he's a lunge or two inside the 3-point line, Johnson also acts as an extra screener for Miller, who can always use an extra inch or two to squeeze off his shots.
Even with Miller and Jackson firing away and O'Neal on the shelf, Indiana has proven surprisingly capable in the paint. Minus O'Neal, the Pacers have been outrebounded by less than two caroms a game, a figure that can only improve if Carlisle affords more minutes to Jeff Foster. Dale Davis may be admirably manning the middle (averaging 7.1 points and 9.4 boards), but he could use the help of Foster, one of the league's best offensive rebounders, Foster has the quickness and jumping ability to move around or over opponents. He also has the strength to muscle for position good enough to grab 14.1 boards for every 40 minutes he plays, further proof that the 26.7 minutes he gets a night are too few.
In becoming a plodding team with a talent for tracking down wayward shots, Indiana promises to be an infuriating playoff opponent. Frustrated by Indiana's pace, impatient opponents are sure to force up bad shots after seemingly waiting an eternity to get the ball. Carlisle is also big on exploiting mismatches, whether it's running Miller through screens away from slower or inexperienced defenders, or posting up whoever has a size mismatch. Because their patience allows them to focus solely on one possession at a time, this piecemeal approach works.
As it stands, Indiana will take on their buddies in Detroit in the first round. Though the Pacers, Miller especially, haven't exactly kept quiet about the NBA's treatment of the franchise since the brawl at the Palace, they've hardly chafed as much as the defending champs since the incident. As flaky and moody as the Pistons appear, the Pacers could make the matchup a horror show for Detroit.
And the way this team has been playing recently, nothing should surprise anyone anymore.