Pacers lose Artest but find Themselves
THERE are two Indiana Pacers teams.
There are the prebrawl Pacers, whose symbol was Ron Artest: tough, physical, bruising. This was a team for which toughness meant tracking down perpetrators and handing out instant justice.
Then there are the postbrawl Pacers with multiple identities, a team for which toughness has meant perseverance and overcoming adversity, taking its punishment and making the best of a difficult situation.
I like these Pacers a lot better, and I'm not alone.
Who could have guessed on Nov. 19, after the horrific brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, that Indiana would evolve into an admirable underdog?
Several Pacers, led by Artest, charged into the stands to beat up Pistons fans they suspected of throwing objects at them. It was frontier justice; the Pacers became do-it-themselves judges, juries and executioners. The altercation sparked a near riot and resulted in several suspensions, including Artest's for the rest of the season.
After a morning practice on Friday, the Pacers' Austin Croshere said he had sensed the team's change in attitude. "You see in sports where a team will make excuses for themselves, or when things don't go well, they blame it on other people," he said. "We just refused to do that. We had every opportunity to do that. We had every opportunity to make every excuse in the book, and we just refused to do that."
A week ago, I felt that the Pacers could not win without Artest. But now I'm not so sure that they don't have what it takes to reach the final. Last night, they continued their unlikely playoff run and took a 2-1 series lead over Detroit with a 79-74 victory. Shaquille O'Neal's deep thigh bruise puts a serious dent in Miami's chances. His absence opens the door for every playoff team in the East, including Indiana.
While Indiana battles Detroit, Artest is on a Band-Aid tour to repair his image. He is going on talk shows and giving magazine interviews, putting his spin on his behavior and his suspension. But Artest is missing the point.
"His heart is in the right place," Croshere said.
But Artest's heart isn't the issue. His emotions are. This is a matter that is deeply rooted and cannot be addressed with a mere "I'm sorry" on ESPN.
Croshere said he had watched part of Artest's interview. "I just turned it off because it's kind of at the point now where I think everybody on the team is like, 'Well, I'll believe it when I see it,' " Croshere said.
"Ron is a good guy," he added. "I see him in practice, I go up and talk to him. We talk about our kids all the time. But what's going to happen in a game where his guy gets 25 or 30 points or he misses a shot at the end of a game; he doesn't get the ball at the end of a game; high-stress situation. How does he handle that?
"Ron's made a lot of mistakes since he's been here, and he needs to atone for that."
The Pacers are looking for deeds, not words.
"These interviews are fine," Croshere said. "I'm sure he's learned from his mistakes, but you're not putting him in a situation where he's made mistakes. It's not a high-pressure situation to sit in front of a camera and answer questions."
The fallout from the brawl has had an upside for Indiana. A number of players who craved playing time - Fred Jones, James Jones and Croshere - had the opportunity to play, and have played well. The starters and the stars, except for Artest, are back from injuries and suspensions. Those who were playing more minutes are back to being role players, but the increased playing time has benefited everyone on the team.
The fallout from the brawl has this downside: The basketball intensity of this series will suffer because the physical nature of each team will, out of necessity, give way to a certain restraint.
The Pistons and the Pacers are walking on eggshells. The series will not be as uncompromisingly physical as it would have been had there never been a brawl. Nobody wants to be thrown out of a playoff series, and no one wants to be ejected from a game in this series. Everyone connected with the brawl is ashamed and a little embarrassed by what happened, and now the Pacers have emerged with a moral imperative. They were punished, and they have endured.
"People are drawn to an underdog story," Croshere said. "And even though we shot ourselves in the foot, we've kind of become the underdog since that incident."
I'm not convinced the Pacers would have made this great run had Artest been in the lineup. Reggie Miller would not have become the clutch player of old; last night, he made a field goal with 10.7 seconds left and also made four free throws down the stretch. The Pacers have created an identity without Artest.
In fact, the question is not what would happen if Artest were playing. The reality for Artest to consider is that if he were here, the Pacers might not be.