December 21, 2005
New-look Pacers face tough test
Indiana will find out just how good it is without Artest in 4 games against playoff-caliber teams
By Mike Wells
Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle started answering a question then stopped midsentence to make a clarification.
"All four teams are playoff teams," Carlisle said.
Carlisle was referring to his team's next four opponents.
The Pacers are 4-1 since forward Ron Artest went on the inactive list, but they'll get a better feel for where they are when they start a tough four-game stretch against playoff-caliber teams starting tonight with the Los Angeles Clippers at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers play their next three games on the road against Cleveland, Dallas and San Antonio.
"They're all really good teams," Carlisle said. "We're going to have to be real efficient and real tied together on defense to have a chance to win all of them. We'll get a better idea of where we are. The games we've won recently, a lot of them have been at home, which is a very good sign because it's real important to play well at home. You get on the road, it's always tougher."
Although the Pacers have fared well without Artest, they realize what lies ahead.
"We've won those games, but I'm not ready to say we've turned the corner and things are going to be great from here on out," forward Austin Croshere said. "If things don't go as well over any three-game stretch, I'm not going to say we're in a bad situation, either."
The Pacers catch a break somewhat because the Clippers and Cavaliers will be on the back end of back-to-back games. The Clippers played at New Jersey on Tuesday and Cleveland plays at Chicago on Thursday.
The Pacers were supposed to struggle without Artest. But rather than try to replace one of league's premier all-around players with one player, the Pacers have rallied around each other.
"It's the best it's been," rookie Sarunas Jasikevicius said. "The guys are playing like a team. They're playing very hard. It's a great feeling to be in right now."
The Pacers have lost the rebounding battle in three of the past five games, but have clamped down defensively. They're holding teams to 38 percent shooting and allowing 83 points during that stretch, six below their season average.
"Efficiency on offense puts you in a good position on defense," Carlisle said. "It's pretty consistent that when our offense is solid, our defense is better. We still are striving for that but we still have been able to run aggressively and be able to pull back when you don't have great opportunities and still have the momentum to execute. That, right now, is part of the fine line we walk as a team. If we do that well, we're going to play well."
Offensively, the Pacers do less standing after Jermaine O'Neal receives the ball; there's more ball movement. They've had at least four double-figure scorers in four of the past five games.
"There's no more of throwing it in the post, dribble, dribble shoot," Croshere said. "Jermaine is very much willing to pass out of the double team. The ball goes in, teams double and it gets moved."
• Who: Clippers (15-9) at Pacers (14-8).
• When: 7 p.m.
• TV: FSN Midwest.
• Radio: WIBC-1070 AM.
Players to watch
• Pacers -- Danny Granger had his best game as a pro Saturday when he finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks against the New York Knicks. Granger's next task is to make sure he continues to progress. Granger, who is being counted on to help make up for the loss of Ron Artest, has played at least 23 minutes in four of the past six games. Granger's minutes will likely increase as long as he continues to show he can handle the workload.
• Clippers -- Elton Brand is quietly having an MVP-type season, averaging in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding. He has registered 16 double-doubles and is shooting nearly 54 percent from the field. Brand should make his second All-Star appearance this season.
The Pacers open a tough four-game stretch against the Clippers tonight. The Pacers are catching Los Angeles on the tail end of back-to-back games. The Clippers played at New Jersey on Tuesday. The Pacers beat the Clippers 97-92 behind Artest's 22 points Nov. 27. The Clippers are atop the Pacific Division, though they have dropped four of their past five games. The Pacers have won four of their past five.
-- Mike Wells