Pacers stuck marking time awaiting trade
Indiana competitive but doesn't look like contender as Artest sits
By Mark Montieth
The bus waiting in the bowels of the Staples Center for Danny Granger late Monday night was as apt a metaphor as any for the Indiana Pacers.
It was idling, waiting for someone to arrive.
So are the Pacers, who stand 18-14 heading into tonight's game against Milwaukee at Conseco Fieldhouse after splitting a four-game Western trip that ended with a 96-90 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Without Ron Artest, who has been inactive since his Dec. 10 trade request, the Pacers have remained a competitive team. They are not, however, a contending team.
What they are is a mixed bag that lacks identity, as their trip summarized.
They opened with an embarrassing 20-point loss to Denver, and followed with uplifting wins at Golden State and Sacramento. Then, facing an opportunity to finish the trip with a flourish, they failed to make the winning plays in the waning moments.
"We don't have much margin for error no matter who we're playing," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We needed to do just a little more in a lot of areas and couldn't do it.
"I liked the way our guys competed. We just didn't have enough in the fourth quarter."
Some players have expressed hope that Artest's status will be resolved soon, so they can stop looking over their shoulders. They're aware that any of them are susceptible to being swept up in a trade involving Artest, a subject that has become a source of dark humor within the team. They're also eager to see who arrives, and what help that player or players can bring.
The Pacers' play hasn't dropped off significantly because of Artest's absence, though they certainly could have used him to try to derail Kobe Bryant's 45-point outburst Monday. The Pacers were 10-7 after losing to Dallas in Artest's final game with the team on Dec. 6. They have gone 8-7 since, although starters Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley have each missed games during that stretch.
More immediately, the Pacers need to find a way to establish continuity with whoever they have. They started their 15th lineup of the season against the Lakers.
O'Neal's return to the starting lineup combined with Austin Croshere's departure because of a mild concussion suffered in Sunday's game at Sacramento led to the latest change.
Last season, after the brawl and suspensions led to near-chaotic shuffling of their lineups, the Pacers had started 17 different groups after 31 games. Twelve players have started this season, 11 at least four games. No unit has been together for more than eight games. That was the original lineup of Artest, Croshere, O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley. It went 6-2, providing an indication of what might have been.
Granger, who delayed the bus Monday while getting a tooth yanked back into place by the Lakers' team dentist, has been one of the most consistent players since rejoining the starting lineup. He has averaged 12.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 2.2 steals over the past five games, and been a solid defender.
For now, further disruption appears more likely than sudden stability. Croshere should return for tonight's game. Tinsley, who has missed the past six games with a torn bicep muscle, could play as well.
Jeff Foster, meanwhile, is returning to form, having grabbed 10 or more rebounds in five of his past six games, and could regain a starting spot.
Meanwhile, team president Larry Bird and CEO Donnie Walsh work the phones, seeing who they can add to the team in a trade for Artest -- and perhaps others.
"We're going to have a good team whether we make a trade now or not," Bird said last week. "We'll see how the season goes. I like the core group. I always have. We have players.
"We're going to do something to make our team better."
And get it moving forward.
Players to watch
• Pacers -- Danny Granger is looking more and more comfortable starting at small forward. The rookie is averaging 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in his past five games. Granger will endure his fair share of ups and downs along the way, but he's showing he can be a regular contributor. Granger is making a strong push for next month's Rookie Challenge game during All-Star weekend in Houston.
• Bucks -- T.J. Ford is back after missing four games with a left foot sprain. Ford, who came off the bench in his first game back Saturday against Cleveland, ignites the Bucks' offense with his lightening-quick speed and ability to create opportunities for his teammates. He has led the team in assists 18 times and had four games of at least 10 assists.
The Pacers return home from a four-game West Coast trip. The Bucks will be playing the second of a back-to-back set. They played at home Tuesday night, beating Minnesota 95-92. There's little chance the Pacers will take the Bucks lightly, not after their first encounter Nov. 12. The Pacers blew a 14-point lead in the final 3:30 and lost by one on Mo Williams' 3-pointer at the buzzer.
-- Mike Wells