By Mark Montieth
January 21, 2004

Rick Carlisle doesn't want to talk about it until it's a certainty. But the Indiana Pacers' 81-69 victory Tuesday over Detroit virtually assured him and his staff of a job in the NBA All-Star game.

The Pacers have the Eastern Conference's best record by 31/2 games. They play four more by the end of the month, the cutoff date for determining which teams have the best record in each conference. The coaches from those teams coach the game, Feb. 15 in Los Angeles.

Detroit has five games left, so it would take a major collapse by the Pacers to give up the lead by then.

"It means a lot to get the coaching staff there," Jermaine O'Neal said. "Last year we were well-represented and this year we'll be well-represented again."

Isiah Thomas and his staff coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars last year. If Carlisle's group gets the honor, it would mark the first time different coaches from the same franchise have worked the game since 1976 and '77, when Philadelphia's Gene Shue and Billy Cunningham worked the game.

"Hopefully we can continue that trend," O'Neal said. "We have some young guys with a lot of years left."

Pacers coach Larry Bird and his staff, which included Carlisle, worked the game in 1998.

O'Neal appears certain to start in the game as a leading vote-getter from the fans. Ron Artest also has a chance to be voted as a reserve by the coaches.

"He has my vote," Pistons coach Larry Brown said before Tuesday's game.

Bender sits again

Jonathan Bender did not dress for the second game in a row, but could play on Friday against Houston.

Bender sat after undergoing preseason knee surgery, then played three games last week. He sat out Monday's game at Atlanta, however, because of soreness in the knee.

He visited with a doctor on Tuesday.

"He's feeling better," Carlisle said. "Precautionarily-speaking, we're going to wait.

"I don't think it would be considered a setback, because there's no further damage."

O'Neal, racers trade

O'Neal exchanged pleasantries and gifts with racers Helio Castroneves and Bryan Herta before the game.

Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, gave O'Neal an autographed helmet and a leather jacket from last year's race. O'Neal replied with shoes, a jersey and a shooting shirt.

O'Neal will put the memorabilia in a trophy room he plans to build in his house. He's not a racing fan, but now has a favorite driver in Castroneves.

"I want to get out there (to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway)," he said. "I've probably watched three in my life. I'm going to be his No. 1 fan."


Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy received a standing ovation when introduced during the first timeout Tuesday. . . . Reggie Miller played the 1,286th game of his career, tying him with Sam Perkins for ninth place on the NBA's all-time list. . . . The Pacers hit 19-of-20 free throws, with Fred Jones guilty of the only miss. . . . The win was the Pacers' fifth wire-to-wire victory of the season. . . . The Pistons had a season-low two steals.

The Pacers are becoming a very good team of free throw shooters. Likely Bird's influence on the organization.