Team Play Has Bird,
By Conrad Brunner | Feb. 20, 2006
As the Pacers return from the All-Star break to prepare for the (figurative) second half of the season, they do so with a mix of mystery, curiosity and, yes, optimism.
Since the acquisition of Peja Stojakovic, a team has begun to emerge, creating optimism.
The Pacers have played at their highest level of the season, winning five of six without injured stars Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley, leading to curiosity as to what might happen to the lineup, rotation and offensive approach upon their return.
Of course, the lack of a timetable for either player's comeback continues to generate mystery about when, or in O'Neal's case if, that will happen.
"I'm very encouraged," said Larry Bird, President of Basketball Operations. "One of the reasons is the ball movement. That and they're playing unselfishly. It seems like they've got an extra step in their run and it shows. We're starting to rebound the ball better. Scot Pollard being healthy has really helped us. It's really good to see the guys step up when things don't look so good around here.
"It could be a serious team. We lost Ronnie Artest but we picked up a heck of a player. We got a guy who can get us 20 points and if they continue to move the ball like they have been with Jermaine in there, we'll be a very good basketball team."
At 26-23, the Pacers stand fifth in the East, in the middle of a tight pack. Just 2Ĺ games separate them from eighth-place Philadelphia, so despite their current standing the margin for error is slim. They conclude a seven-game homestand Tuesday night against the Hornets, then play eight of 10 on the road.
"I like the way we're playing," said Donnie Walsh, franchise CEO and President. "I think we're playing hard, we're playing together. Basically, getting Peja on the team gives us another scorer, a great shooter and a real good player. To get him is a big addition.
"When we get Jermaine and Jamaal back we go back to being a team that's got a lot of depth on it. Ö I think they could end up being one of the top three or four teams in the conference."
Both Bird and Walsh indicated little chance of another move before Thursday's trade deadline, in large part because the injuries to O'Neal and Tinsley have prevented them from being able to judge the team in the aftermath of the Stojakovic acquisition. They need to see how the major pieces fit together before moving forward with team construction.
"We'd like to get everybody healthy," Bird said. "If we can get everybody back and see what we have, then we'll get a better idea of what we want to try to do in the summertime. Obviously, it'd be nice to have Jamaal and Jermaine and Austin (Croshere) out there at full strength but if it doesn't happen we're still looking.
"I think our goal right now is to continue to play hard. The guys are showing some enthusiasm over the last couple of weeks and we've got to have that carrying on not just through this season but also next season."
Tinsley has missed 18 of the last 22 games with an injury to his right biceps and elbow. He has been doing conditioning work but headed into the break still lacking the ability to raise his right arm to shoot. This is the third consecutive year injuries have sidetracked Tinsley. Since the start of the 2003-04 season, he has missed 98 of the Pacers' 213 regular-season games (46 percent).
O'Neal suffered a groin tear in late January. The original forecast was an absence of at least eight weeks, which would mean a return in late March. He was voted into the East starting lineup for Sunday's NBA All-Star Game but was unable to play.
A third injured player, Austin Croshere, could be back soon. Croshere sat out six games since suffering his second concussion of the season. Sarunas Jasikevicius suffered what is believed to be a mild ankle sprain when he stepped on a photographer's foot during the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge on Saturday in Houston.
"We feel like we're pretty good now when we play the way we need to play," said Coach Rick Carlisle. "We can be better, certainly, when we get Jermaine and Jamaal back. The only question is when are those guys going to be ready? I don't know the answer to that. We have a busy schedule after the break. There are going to be a lot of games, so the sooner we can get either or both of those guys back, the better. But without an exact timetable, you're kind of just feeling your way through the situation."
The Pacers have played the fewest games (49) of any NBA team, but that soon will change. The March schedule brings 18 games. Only once before in franchise history (April 1999) have the Pacers faced as many games in a month and that was in a season forced into compressed schedule due to the lockout.
On top of the physical grind of the games, the schedule offers little opportunity for practice opportunities to re-acclimate players returning from injuries.
"As we get guys back, we'll continue to get better," said Stephen Jackson. "Weíre playing well right now but we need all the help we can get."