Who is to start at point?
When Tinsley returns, Johnson's strong play will make it an issue

By Mike Wells

Anthony Johnson says Jamaal Tinsley is the starter. Tinsley says Johnson should continue to start. Sarunas Jasikevicius, the third point guard in the group, just wants to play, anywhere.

The coach, well, he doesn't want to address the issue yet.

As much as Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle doesn't wish to talk about it, he knows eventually he'll have two decisions to make about his trio of point guards: who starts, and how can he manage playing time for all three?

"I don't know; it's not really a conversation until it's a reality," Carlisle said. "We'll see. A lot can happen between now and when (Tinsley) comes back. It's a situation that we'll resolve when it comes time to resolve it."

Tinsley, the team's starter at the beginning of the season, continues to make progress on the right elbow injury that has sidelined him the past 12 games. He is practicing on his own, but neither he nor the team has set a return date.

A player isn't supposed to lose his starting job to injury, but Johnson has grabbed hold of the role and is doing his best not to let go.

Johnson, filling in for Tinsley for the second consecutive season, is averaging 10.5 points and 5.1 assists as a starter compared to 4.1 points and 2.4 assists off the bench this season. He's averaging 17.2 points and 6.4 assists over the past five games.

"He's playing great right now," Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders said. "I said one of the reasons they're playing so well right now is because of the play of Johnson and the play of (Danny) Granger. Those two guys have stepped up and they're playing at an extremely high level."

Carlisle won't say that Johnson will remain the starter when Tinsley returns, but the coach said Johnson will get an opportunity to keep the job.

"We need him to continue to play well to have a chance to keep having some success," Carlisle said. "He's making a strong case to be the starter."

Tinsley, on pace to play less than half the season for a second consecutive year, said he plans to tell coaches he is fine coming off the bench.

"It's a good thing that A.J. is playing well," Tinsley said. "Right now, how he's playing, I don't even want to come back and start. I think he's been playing good and he's doing a great job for us. I just want to come back and help the team. The chemistry is going good. That's my thing."

It's no secret how much better Tinsley makes the Pacers when he's healthy. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said earlier this season the Pacers wouldn't have beaten his team in the playoffs last season if Tinsley hadn't returned for Game 5. Tinsley's style is tailored to the Pacers' new up-tempo style.

"My point on it is, Jamaal is definitely the starter," said Johnson, who began the season as the third point guard. "Jamaal is definitely the more talented of the three. There's no question about that. At the same time, we have to see where he's at since he's been out for a long period of time. You have to do what's best for the team. If that means starting him or bringing him off the bench, that's a decision for Rick to make.

"I feel like I've thrown my hat in the ring by playing well. Whether it's starting or coming off the bench, I just want to be in the rotation."
Jasikevicius and Johnson have said they'll play shooting guard, but neither feels comfortable there because neither would have the ball in his hands as much.

"I have no idea what's going to happen," said Jasikevicius, who likely will be the third point guard when Tinsley returns. "I've been a backup ever since I've been here. I've been Jamaal's backup, then when Jamaal went down, I was A.J.'s backup. I don't know what my role is going to be. It doesn't matter who is starting, I'm the backup. That's one thing that was very strange. At the same time, that's the way it works."