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It's a new beginning for the Indiana Pacers. Reggie Miller is gone. Ron Artest is back. And tonight in Orlando, Fla., they take the first steps in what they expect to be a journey to the NBA championship.
All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal has said anything short of the title will be a failure.
Team president Larry Bird has said if O'Neal can't produce one, he'll find someone who can.
With two top players in O'Neal and Artest and one of the deepest benches in the league, the talent is there.
They know it, and so does the rest of the league.
"The only way we don't win this year is that we self-destruct or we don't want it as much as we say we do," O'Neal said. "There's going to be situations that come up where we're going to be challenged. I'm interested to see how we take to it."
Does that optimism sound familiar? It should. The Pacers entered last season fresh off a 61-win season and immediately set their sights on winning a ring for Miller. Those hopes vanished Nov. 19, when O'Neal, Artest and Stephen Jackson took part in a brawl that produced season-altering suspensions.
O'Neal was out until late December and Jackson until late January. Artest was barred from the final 73 regular-season games and the postseason.
"I think we have a lot to prove," forward Austin Croshere said. "I think this type of talk might have been fair last year, because two years ago I thought we had a great year. But we weren't in the NBA Finals last season. We weren't even in the Eastern Conference finals. I think it's unfair to think it's a given it's going to work itself out from Day 1. People are picking us to win a championship, but that's based more off talent than what we have done on the court in the last 12 months."
Said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle: "I can't imagine any of our guys would get ahead of themselves after what happened to us last year. We were in the same position, the same situation and things changed dramatically, literally overnight. So I don't see that as a problem. We know we should be one of the better teams, but we have to go out and prove it."
O'Neal can't wait to try. After injuries, suspensions, 30 starting lineups and a second-round playoff exit last season, he said the Pacers have been tested.
"That's why I feel so positive," O'Neal said. "It couldn't get any worse than last year. That's not just the brawl, it's everything; sicknesses, injuries, whatever, we had it last year. Things happen for a reason and it has built this team up. We depend on each other and we have full confidence in one another."
The Pacers went into camp relatively healthy, but they'll limp into tonight's game. Center Jeff Foster is out until at least Thanksgiving with an Achilles problem, and Scot Pollard isn't ready to return from his calf injury. That leaves O'Neal, who is a power forward, and banged-up David Harrison to play center.
The Pacers were 5-3 in the preseason despite not having their projected starting five together. Better than the record, however, was how the team interacted. Artest, O'Neal and Jackson, the team's top scoring options, were on the same page for the most part. Sarunas Jasikevicius and Danny Granger, the team's only offseason pickups, have given added stability off the bench. Four players averaged double figures, and Artest was willing to come off the bench.
"It goes a little bit further than us playing together," O'Neal said. "Everybody has to set aside agendas. We can't worry about personal accomplishments. It's about this team reaching the highest goal and that's the championship.
"If you put those things aside, which I think we're right on course, we'll be a tough team."
The Pacers will get an early indication of where they stand when they play Miami twice in their first four games.
Talent is only part of the equation to winning the title, O'Neal said. The Pacers haven't matched the mental toughness of San Antonio and Detroit, the past two NBA champions.
"Personally, I don't think the Pacers have ever had a team like this as far as talent," O'Neal said. "The one thing we have this year to go with talent is we have the mental toughness that's needed to take us over the top. The last couple of years we've always had more talent than anybody else, but we didn't have experience and toughness mentally. This year is a different story."
• Who: Pacers at Magic.
• When: 7 p.m.
• TV: WTTV-4.
• Radio: WIBC-1070 AM.
PLAYERS TO WATCH TONIGHT
• Pacers: Ron Artest. He stayed relatively quiet in the preseason. The All-Star forward led the Pacers with 16.3 points and 5.7 rebounds a game in the preseason. Tonight will be his first regular-season game since the brawl last Nov. 19. He's averaging 17.3 points a game against the Magic as a Pacer.
• Magic: Dwight Howard. The top pick in the 2004 draft averaged 12.0 points and 10.0 rebounds as a rookie. He started all 82 games and was one of eight players to average a double-double. Howard and Charlotte's Emeka Okafor are the first rookies to accomplish the feat since 1992-93.
The Magic didn't make the playoffs, but they won three of four meetings against the Pacers last season. The Pacers are 13-17 at Orlando. This is the Pacers' only visit to Orlando this season. Brian Hill, who led Orlando to the NBA Finals in 1995, is back for his second stint as coach of the Magic.
5 things to watch this season
The NBA season tipped off Tuesday with four games. The Indiana Pacers open their season tonight in Orlando. Here are five story lines to watch this season:
1. Ron Artest Artest was on his best behavior (for the most part) in the preseason. When he wasn't playing, Artest was busy gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and Penthouse, challenging Ben Wallace to a pay-per-view boxing match and doing an HBO interview. The Pacers will be legitimate title contenders as long as Artest focuses on being the best all-around player in the league.
2. Fashion patrol The new dress code went into effect Tuesday. Jeff Foster, Eddie Gill and Scot Pollard will have a chance to show off their designer threads as all three are expected to be on the inactive list against the Magic tonight. Stephen Jackson, who called the league's ban on chains a racial statement, won't be wearing his chains to the arena.
3. Will it be a Hollywood ending in L.A.? Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are reunited in Los Angeles. They're good, but the Lakers probably won't make the playoffs this season. The person they both need is 7-1 and calls South Beach his home.
4. Is there a "D" in New York? Larry Brown preaches defense. But there's a problem: His players in New York don't play much of it. The Knicks will be better, and possibly compete for a playoff spot, but Brown will probably age a few years trying to get his team to stop anybody.
5.How will the reigning MVP do without his running mate? Steve Nash averaged 11.5 assists and won the MVP trophy by throwing the ball near the rim and letting Amare Stoudemire throw it down for dunks last season. Stoudemire is out at least four months with a left knee injury. Nash better hope former Pacer James Jones can catch his passes and quickly knock down 3-pointers.
Artest's Return Marks Season-Opener Tonight's Game: Ron Artest's official return to the NBA comes tonight in Orlando when the Pacers begin a 2005-06 season with title asiprations against the Magic (7:00, WB4).
"After what we went through last year, we're looking forward to getting started. … If we play hard and play together we're going to win our share of games."
- Rick Carlisle
PACERS.COM SCOUTING REPORT
Artest's Return Marks Season-Opener By Conrad Brunner | Nov. 2, 2005 There have been many minor milestones along the way: first practice, first organized game, first intrasquad scrimmage, first exhibition game and so on. But for Ron Artest, the real first step in his return to the Pacers comes tonight in Orlando (7:00, WB4) when he takes the floor for a regular-season game for the first time since Nov. 19, 2004.
Everything up until now has simply been preparation for this moment, when his comeback becomes real.
"It's definitely been a long time," said Artest. "It's going to feel good to get back out there. I'm definitely ready to pick up where I left off. I want to get my teammates involved and win games."
Artest's presence at both ends of the floor will be most welcome for the Pacers, who lost a player averaging 24.6 points per game while holding the title of reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year at the time of his suspension. Artest has added about 10 pounds to his already robust frame and used the summer league and preseason games to knock off as much rust as possible.
"I'm sure he's very excited to be in a real game," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "Exhibition games don't show true reality as far as our league goes. I'm sure he's anxious to be out there and we're excited for him."
Coming off a 36-46 season, Orlando brought back Coach Brian Hill, who guided the team to its biggest success , going 167-79 from 1993-96. Hill's Magic beat the Pacers in seven games in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals to make their lone NBA Finals appearance, losing to the Rockets. Hill has a mix of emerging young stars, starting with power forward Dwight Howard, and established veterans like guard Steve Francis. Grant Hill will miss at least three weeks with a sports hernia, a setback for an Orlando team hoping to build needed confidence with a quick start. KEY MATCHUP Point Guard - Francis never got untracked against the Pacers last season, averaging just 15.0 points on 33.8 percent shooting in four games, with nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (18). Neutralizing Orlando's primary offensive threat is central to the Pacers' plan. INJURIES Pacers - C David Harrison (abdominal strain) and G Jamaal Tinsley (viral infection) are probable; F Jonathan Bender (knee) is questionable; C Jeff Foster (sore left Achilles) and C Scot Pollard (strained left calf) are out. Magic - G Keyon Dooling (right heel contusion) is questionable; C Mario Kasun (right ankle tendinitis) is doubtful; and F Stacey Augmon (hernia) and F Grant Hill (hernia) are out.