Hey Bob, welcome to the Sunshine Brigade!
Pacers quietly get into perfect spot
February 29, 2004
This is where the Pacers want to be, how the Pacers want to be. Standing atop the Eastern Conference, cruising along quietly and efficiently toward the top seed and home-court advantage, beating almost everybody and scaring absolutely nobody.
A year ago, they were loud and gaudy, the New Bad Boys, making a dramatic run to the front, then staging an equally spectacular fall from grace.
This time, there's no noise. No tumult. No Ron Artest craziness. (Mea culpa, Ron, mea culpa.) In fact, the loudest Pacer has been the man who was supposed to be the iciest -- their coach, Rick Carlisle.
This time, they are flying under the radar.
Which is the best place they can be.
They are not only well on their way to meeting their team goal for victories -- Carlisle won't share that number -- but they appear better suited to winning in a playoff setting.
"At this point, I'm pleased for the players," Carlisle said before Saturday night's perfunctory 81-74 victory over the Allen Iverson-less Philadelphia 76ers. "There weren't many people who thought we could be in this position at this moment, with the trade of (Brad) Miller, (Ron) Mercer, the upheaval that happened. They've done some great things to get to this position.
"On the other hand, we know if we don't win in the playoffs, the season is a bust. So I think our optimism and good feeling is hedged by the reality our season is about playoff success."
Which is true, very true, especially after the flameouts the past two seasons.
But at some point, you take time to acknowledge and appreciate a remarkable two-thirds of a season.
Honestly, outside of Indiana, how many people know that the Pacers are tied with Minnesota for the league lead in victories (43), one win better than Sacramento after Saturday's game? How many know they have a better record than San Antonio, Dallas and the Lakers?
Sometimes, I forget. Sometimes, I look at the NBA standings, see the Pacers at the top, pulling away from Detroit and New Jersey and everybody else, and I have to do a double-take.
Wait. The Pacers are on their way to a 55-plus-win season and have a chance to put together the franchise's greatest regular season ever? Really? When did this happen and why didn't I get the memo?
They don't have a dominant center.
They don't have a big-name point guard.
They don't have a Big Ticket or Big Fundamental or Big Anything, although I'm sure we could come up with something for Primoz Brezec.
But on nights like Saturday, they get Al Harrington's best performance as a starter since the Artest injury. They get a strong game from the bench, notably Fred Jones.
Forty-three and sixteen.
It tells you what a remarkable job Carlisle and his staff have done this season. It tells you what an amazing season Jermaine O'Neal and Artest have had. It tells you a lot of good things about this group, which has grown up a lot this season.
Still, all these victories, and they don't scare anybody.
Even in the East, all the talk has centered on New Jersey's spiritual renewal and Detroit's acquisition of Rasheed Wallace.
Maybe it's the three first-round exits in a row.
Maybe it's the sense that even if they come out of the East, they'll get spanked in the Finals (although, if the Lakers aren't there, it's not a sure thing anymore).
Maybe it's the way the New Orleans Hornets, the most physical team in the East, have throttled the Pacers twice in recent weeks.
There were a lot of these same doubts about another local team whose playoff history wasn't particularly inspiring.
Crazy as it sounds, Artest's thumb injury may ultimately prove to be the best thing that could have happened to this team.
For one, Artest will return with fresher legs than ever.
But almost as important, this gives Jonathan Bender his best, and maybe his last, chance to show the Pacers he can not only stay healthy, but he can produce when it matters. He didn't get that opportunity Saturday night, missing the game to attend a funeral. But his time will come these next few weeks, giving management an opportunity to discern whether Bender's future is here or elsewhere.
Forty-three and sixteen.
They still don't scare anybody.