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That's all we're talking about. Millions of dollars spent, days of negotiations, months of anticipation – all for 96 minutes. Two games.
As the Pacers and Pistons face off in the East Conference semis, everyone is focusing on the drama of Nov. 19, waiting for the next tech to lead to another jump-off, hoping that when the series gets to Indy, Antonio McDyess or Lindsay Hunter retaliates. But lost in the anticipation of ignorance is the history of this, the history that began long before that day just before Thanksgiving, a history that began the second Rick Carlisle was fired as the coach of the Detroit Pistons.
They couldn't get past this stage. Remember? That's where Detroit was. Carlisle's squad had everything necessary to beat the Nets, but couldn't do it. And even more than the Nets, the Pacers scared them.
Enter Joe Dumars and Larry Brown. The Pacers had a meltdown that year, 2003, after they started the season with the best record in the East before the All-Star break. The Pistons could see that in the future, they'd have to go through Indiana – not Jersey – to get to the Eastern Conference promised land.
So after televisions got tossed outside of locker rooms and players' family members got ill and bad luck met bad basketball and Larry Bird fired Isiah Thomas the minute he got top billing with Donnie Walsh as h.w.i.c. ... after all that, Rick Carlisle got re-introduced to a spot on the Pacers' bench to make Dumars look like a fool.
This set the stage. Every sports analyst outside of Sopranoville picked the Pacers and the Pistons to battle one another in the ECF. This time last year, it happened and it lived up to the hype. It went six games, with the Pistons proving Rasheed Wallace was the difference.
To get there, where they need to be, the Pacers had to win two more games, and those two games had to be against the Pistons. In the playoffs. This year.
So they let their best player off the bench, Al Harrington, go in exchange for Stephen Jackson. He was to be the missing link, the player who was going to be the difference, the player who was going to win them those two games.
Everything was set – the plan in effect mode like an Al B. Sure album. Jackson was their Andrew Toney, the hired gun to quicksilver the sheriff.
Then a cup of beer got thrown ... and upset the set-up, screwing up the greatest series the East would have seen since Ewing was missing game-winning jumpers in the lane against Jordan.
And this is when Ron Artest is missed the most.
Again, this is when Ron Artest is missed the most.
His suspension is not about the regular season. It's not about the damage it did to the Pacers through the first 82 games. It's not about this being Reggie Miller's last season. Ron Artest not being on the floor during this series is about the Pacers' yearlong struggle to get in position to win two more games than they did last year. Just two more games against the Pistons. No one else.
For 12 months, they've waited to get to this moment, to get to this inevitable place, to prove that over this past year, they've made themselves two games better than the best team in basketball. And now, because of one player, one incident, we'll never witness the true outcome.
The fight doesn't define the series. Or the rivalry. That was done long before Ben Wallace and Ron-Ron decided to Fi'ty and Fat Joe each other. This was the NBA's un-sexy version of the Lakers/Kings. Must-TiVo TV. Before Monday night's Game 1, their record against each other since 2003: 7-7. The plan for the Pacers was to have that record locked at 10-10 a week from now. With one game left to play.
But that won't happen now. Not this year. Not with Jermaine O'Neal's shoulder at 70 percent, not with Carlisle still trying to find a rotation as Jamaal Tinsley comes back, not with Dale Davis having to handle Ben Wallace by himself. And because Reggie's done, because Larry Brown might retire, because no one knows what Artest's future is, a real series between the Pacers/ Pistons won't ever happen.
That's why it's so hard to watch. Not that David Stern should have allowed Artest into the playoffs, but Artest's absence negates the opportunity for the last great rivalry in the game to end the way it was supposed to.
Monday, 96-81. One game down, three to go for the Pistons. The Pacers won't get the opportunity to play those two games, let alone win them.
Even if they do, even if they push the Pistons to the brink in this series – even if by the power of God and His belief that something good needs to happen to the Pacers – it won't be the same. The build-up, the positioning, one team's specific strategy to get past another to reach its destiny ... all for nothing.
Like Jackson said after Game 1, "They came out to make a statement and they made it."
The question leading up to every other game that will be played in this series: What statement will the Pacers make now that the one they were trying to make is silent?
But we will watch. We have to, regardless of how different it is from last year, regardless of whether the Pacers even get to play those last two games.
We have to watch for Reggie, for this will be it for him.
We have to watch for Jermaine, for battling both injury and infraction to get back into uniform just for this series.
We have to watch for Jackson, just to see if the move to get him to defeat the champs would have been worth it had they been at full strength and staff.
And we have to watch for Carlisle, if for nobody else, because he doesn't deserve everything that's happened to him over the last seven months. He needs some love. Our love. Because those two games have had him sleepless since last May, and he ain't about to get to play them them. Not this May.
We owe it to the game to watch this rivalry end this way, in a way that no one could have predicted. It's cold, but it's fair.
It's just messed up that no one was thinking about the importance of this series back on Nov. 19.
Or Nov. 20.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.