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I thought the Indiana Pacers would be hard-pressed to win 48 games.
I thought Ron Artest would prove to be incorrigible and bring down the entire franchise with another season of misbehaving.
I thought the loss of Brad Miller would leave the Pacers with a giant hole in the middle, one that couldn't start to be filled by Jeff Foster.
I thought Jamaal Tinsley was yesterday's news when he spent the first part of the season on the end of the bench. (At the time, coach Rick Carlisle was telling me he hadn't completely given up on Tinsley, but I figured it was just wishful thinking.)
I thought the Pacers would get off to an ordinary start, even against a soft early season schedule, then coalesce later in the season.
I thought . . .
By the way, did I mention I got three of four teams right in the Final Four? And why didn't Richard Clarke warn me before I consigned Indiana to a sub-50-victory season?
With the Pacers on the cusp of clinching the Central Division, the Eastern Conference, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and possibly the top seed in the German Bundesliga, it's past time to acknowledge the wholly obvious:
This has been a truly remarkable regular season.
Soon, we will be talking about the best regular season in the franchise's NBA history. Soon, we will be talking about the greatest winning percentage in the team's history.
Before we start thinking about first-round matches -- how about an Indiana-New York throw-down? -- let's take a moment to appreciate an amazing accomplishment.
Now, I wasn't wrong about everything.
I believed that Carlisle would make this a tougher, more well-conditioned, playoff-ready team, and he has.
I believed that Jermaine O'Neal would make everybody forget about the offseason spat over Isiah Thomas, and would return with all his energy focused on a championship, and he has.
I believe . . .
Actually, that's about it.
I never thought Artest could behave for an entire season. He's had a few small moments, and you're never completely out of the woods with him, but he's been a man of his word. He's not only kept his anger in check, he has emerged as the clear-cut Defensive Player of the Year, and was nothing short of spectacular during O'Neal's recent absence.
I never thought Tinsley was going to emerge in time to make a difference this season. But here he is, playing smart, hitting his outside shots, leading the best team in the league. I've always liked his talent, but his conditioning, his commitment, those I questioned. In the end, the best thing that ever happened to his career was being told to sit down at the beginning of the year.
I never thought Foster could replace Miller and help make the Pacers an all-around better team. I've always believed that when people say, "He does a lot of things that don't show up on the score sheet," it's really a nice way of saying he's not all that good. But Foster has provided a presence on defense and on the boards that they never had with Miller.
I never thought the Pacers would reach this point of the season with the ability to think seriously about an NBA title. Even if they won the East, they were doomed against the West, right? I seem to remember suggesting that winning the East was like being the best alpine skier in Barbados -- or something like that.
Now, look. They're not only tearing up the East, but they've dominated the West, too.
I never thought Carlisle would find a way around Thomas' biggest problem: that is, finding minutes for a deep roster, keeping everybody happy -- well, relatively happy. But one year after the Pacers' giant meltdown, Carlisle has players who are willing to accept their roles.
Maybe that's Carlisle's influence, and maybe it's just the natural process of maturation -- again, probably both -- but it's been a joy to watch. In a league populated with ego-driven whiners, the Pacers have been uncompromisingly professional.
Every night, it's somebody else. Austin Croshere and Fred Jones. Al Harrington or Anthony Johnson. Jonathan Bender (when he's healthy) or Kenny Anderson or, at odd moments, Scot Pollard. Sorry, Primoz.