By Mark Montieth
January 21, 2004

Their mantra is unanimous and persistent.

We haven't done anything yet . . . we can get better . . . we just want to keep going.

Yet the Indiana Pacers could be forgiven for allowing themselves some private satisfaction for what they've done lately, including Tuesday's 81-69 victory over Detroit at Conseco Fieldhouse.

They're 33-11. They've built a 31/2-game lead over the Pistons for the lead in the Central Division and the Eastern Conference. They've won 12 of their past 13 games. They completed a stretch in which they played four games in the last five nights without a loss, dispatching three teams -- San Antonio, New Jersey and the Pistons -- that won division titles last season and remain among the NBA's elite.

They also are 3-0 against Detroit, clinching the season series -- which will come in handy for playoff seeding should they tie in the regular season.

Yet there was no celebrating, no proclaiming, no prognosticating in their locker room afterward.

"You can't pop any champagne for this win," Jermaine O'Neal said. "Championships aren't won in January."

"We can't get big-headed," Reggie Miller said. "We can't overlook the big prize, and that's to continue to get better."

"We just move on," Ron Artest said. "We had a nice win."

And so it goes for a team that has the fresh memory of last season's collapse to keep it grounded. The Pacers were 32-12 at this stage a year ago, and were 37-15 three games after the All-Star break before personal issues and inexperience brought a late-season collapse that fed into a first-round playoff loss.

Coach Rick Carlisle -- whose staff is now all but assured of coaching the Eastern Conference team in the All-Star game on Feb. 15 -- has been hammering home a humble viewpoint all season. But his players have not been tough sells.

"The coaches didn't go through what we went through last year," said O'Neal, who played what Carlisle called "a monster of a game" with 28 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots.

"It's good to win games early, but championships aren't won early," O'Neal said. "There are so many things that can tear a team apart. We're really trusting in each other. And we know what our goal is. Our goal is to not only get out of the first round, but to compete for the championship and bring the championship back to Indiana."

But, they are quick to remind, that comes much later. For now all they can do is win, which they expect to do each game. Lately, it's been difficult to dispute their confidence and single-mindedness.

Or their defense.

Detroit brought a 13-game winning streak, matching the longest in franchise history, into the fieldhouse Tuesday, but never managed a single lead. It shot 39 percent, committed 21 turnovers, scored two second-chance points and admittedly wasn't as physical as the Pacers. Its two primary offensive weapons, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, combined to hit 6-of-26 shots against an aggressive help defense.

The Pacers were no joy on offense, hitting 38 percent. But O'Neal and Miller provided all they needed.

O'Neal had eight points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in the first quarter, when the Pistons hit just 3-of-16 shots. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds by halftime and hit all six foul shots in the final five minutes to preserve the lead.

He's scored 20 or more in the last six games, and has hit 29-of-52 shots in the past three.

Miller continued an offensive revival. He scored 22 points in 30 minutes, providing the perimeter threat that balances their post-heavy attack. It was his third-highest scoring game of the season, but his second 20-plus effort in the past four. He's hit 32-of-33 free throws in the past 11 games and 17-of-30 3-pointers in the past six.

Seven of his points Tuesday came in the third quarter, when the Pistons were within four points on three occasions but could never crack through.

"Just getting some good looks," Miller said.

"I changed my mechanics at the beginning of (January). The first two months, not knowing how the ankle was going to respond to the surgery, it's feeling better. Guys are setting better screens and I'm trying to be more aggressive."

Why did I start this thread by asking if Reggie Miller was a robot or android?

Well, he admits to changing his mechanics in the last paragraph and he's talking about himself not one of his vehicles. If he was human he would admit to changing his doctors. Hence there's no other explanation he simply has to be a robot or android.

This would also explain why he plays so well at his advanced age!