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If the Indiana Pacers were stranded on an island and had to build huts out of popsicle sticks and forage for berries to survive, Rick Carlisle's team could construct townhouses with indoor plumbing and find a way to make smoothies.
No team does more with less. No team navigates survival mode better. Following last year's suspensions and injury curse, making the best of their misfortune has become an old hat for Indiana, which has won eight of 11 since slipping under .500 on Jan. 31.
Indiana got through the banishment of Ron Artest and has coped with lingering injuries to star forward Jermaine O'Neal and talented point guard Jamaal Tinsley. The Pacers don't make excuses. They find ways to persevere.
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| Rick Carlisle relies on players like Sarunas Jasikevicius to step up for the Pacers. (Getty Images) || |
"It's a situation we've been dealing with the last two years, not having our whole team," shooting guard Stephen Jackson said after Wednesday night's 99-93 victory over Washington left Indiana in sole possession of fifth in the East. "Guys have been in and out of the rotation. This says a lot about this team."
The Pacers played without Tinsley's replacement, Anthony Johnson (stomach flu), and simply inserted third-stringer Sarunas Jasikevicius into the starting five. He responded with 14 points and a career-high 11 assists in 39 minutes, resembling the floor general who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to consecutive Euroleague titles before returning to the States.
Sometimes we prove we're a resilient bunch and get through all these problems and show how good we can be," Jasikevicius said. "Sometimes we're not so good. Lately we've been all right. Lately our attitude and how we approach the game has been much better. We just have to keep fighting and hopefully we can get the guys healthy and make a run."
Johnson is expected back for Friday night's visit to Boston, but Tinsley and O'Neal won't be in the lineup for quite some time. Johnson, a career backup, is averaging 10.5 points and 5.1 assists and has averaged 17.2 points and 6.4 assists over the past five games.
Rookie Danny Granger and second-year center David Harrison have helped veterans Scot Pollard and Jeff Foster pick up the considerable slack in O'Neal's absence. Granger and Harrison combined for 6-for-7 shooting and 12 rebounds against the Wizards and give Carlisle the versatility he needs to keep the patchwork Pacers treading water.
Including Artest, 13 different players have taken turns in the starting lineup. No one has complained about his status in the rotation, even though Jasikevicius did envision a larger role when he signed in the offseason. Remember the chemistry issues that were a concern at the beginning of the season? Apparently, they're a thing of the past.
Perhaps it's because Artest is gone, traded to Sacramento on Jan. 28 for Peja Stojakovic. Maybe it's because everyone had to pull together due to O'Neal's absence. Or because Stojakovic, lately the team's biggest horse in the scoring department, doesn't demand the ball. Whatever the reason, things are clicking.
Johnson may end up keeping his starting role when Tinsley comes back. "How he's playing, I don't even want to come back and start," Tinsley told the Indianapolis Star. "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."
Stojakovic has been rejuvenated, too. After struggling in Sacramento (40 percent shooting, 16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg), he's knocking down more than 46 percent of his 3-point attempts and has averaged 19.8 points and 6.9 rebounds in his 12 games with his new squad. If he can continue that production when O'Neal returns, the Pacers are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.
O'Neal has already thrown down the gauntlet. He warned people not to dismiss his team, citing the success the Pacers had against the Pistons and Heat this season. As it stands now, he's simply trusting his teammates to get to the playoffs so he can help them persevere from there. "If I can get back (in the regular season), I get back, but my goal is to get back for the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs," O'Neal told the Star. "I want to make sure everything is healthy, make sure I'm in shape. I'm not going to play to get into shape.
"If I get to a particular point in time between now and the playoffs, anywhere I feel like I'm 100 percent healed and in shape, I'll play. I don't want to shortchange myself and say I'm going to come back on this particular date and when that date comes I'm not ready." Don't think Indiana will be holding its collective breath. Heck, Pollard has plantar fasciitis in both feet, placing his status for every game in question. Even if the Pacers have to pull some tall guy out of the stands, recent history indicates they'll win with whoever is at their disposal.