Pacers waiting for first real challange

By Terry Brown
NBA Insider
Monday, May 10
Updated: May 10
11:57 AM ET

Maybe if the Indiana Pacers win 16 playoff games in a row for their first NBA title, we'll try to remember their starting center's name. Maybe if they just win one more playoff game by double-digits to extend their record-breaking streak to seven, then we'll stop making fun of Reggie Miller's tattoo.

Or . . . maybe they can play somebody worthy during the 2004 postseason and we'll start paying attention.

"We didn't play very well," Miller said in the Indianapolis Star after beating the Heat by 13 in Game 1 of their second-round series. "We can play much better. We still haven't put a complete game together (against the Heat). I'd rather us be playing well rather than coming up with a way to win. We've just got to play better. When this team plays well, I'll acknowledge that, but we're not playing very well right now."

This is what he said after the Pacers beat the Heat by 11 in their second game.

"We can play much better," Reggie Miller said in the Palm Beach Post. "I'm not happy yet with the way we've played."

As Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard puts it: "Indiana isn't playing very well. And Miami is. And Indiana has, nonetheless, blown Miami out twice. That's what happens when the other guys are better than you. Indiana is deeper, bigger, more experienced and more talented. Other than that, though, Miami is in great shape."

Of course, it's not the Pacers' fault that they're playing the Heat in the second round after playing the Boston Celtics in the first round after playing the watered down Eastern Conference during the regular season.


Jermaine O'Neal better break out of his shooting slump before the Pacers face a real opponent.
But it would be our fault if we didn't point out a few things before heaping too many superlatives on their 6-0 playoff record.

The regular-season record for their playoff opponents thus far is 78-86.

Needless to say, this is easiest bracket in the whole NBA postseason tournament. And it's not even close. Here's how the remaining contenders stand so far.

Sacramento Kings' opponents: 110-54 for 67 percent.
San Antonio Spurs' opponents: 106-58 for 64.6 percent.
Los Angeles Lakers' opponents: 102-62 for 62.1 percent.
Miami Heat's opponents: 102-62 for 62.1 percent.
Minnesota Timberwolves' opponents: 98-66 for 59.7 percent.
New Jersey Nets' opponents: 93-71 for 56.7 percent.
Detroit Pistons' opponents: 88-76 for 53.6 percent.
Indiana Pacers' opponents: 78-86 for 47.5 percent.

Even if the Pacers go on to sweep the Heat and play the top two teams remaining in their bracket (which would be Detroit in the Eastern Conference Championship and Minnesota for the NBA Title), the best their opponents' record will be is 190-138 for 57.9 percent.

Last year, the Spurs won the championship by defeating opponents with a record of 203-125 for 61.8 percent . The New Jersey Nets came in second by playing opponents with a record of 196-132 for 59.7 percent.

In other words, the Pacers have had it easy.

"I don't know how good the teams they played on the road were (all season)," Heat sixthman Rafer Alston said in the Indianapolis Star. "But we're extremely good at home. (This) is a place where our energy is extremely high. Guys shoot the ball from half court and think they're going to make it because we're at home. And we witnessed what (home court can do) by what happened to us against New Orleans. We're playing great basketball in (this) building and we look forward to playing great basketball (tonight)."

He can say this because he knows the Pacers haven't been tested yet.

They played a Celtic team that is on its third head coach in less than a season. They got rid of their second-best player before the season started in Antoine Walker. They released their starting power forward Vin Baker after he had played in only 37 games because of substance abuse. And they lost their starting center in Raef LaFrentz after he played only 17games for them because of injury.

And to top it all off, their best player, Paul Pierce, had his worst shooting season of his career. Their first coach quit. Their second coach was fired. And their third coach, recently named, started the season 1-10 before getting fired by his previous employer this season.

For heavens sake, they finished at 36-46 after losing five of their last six games of the regular season. They were 10 games below .500.

These Celtics finished with only one returning starter from last season. There were only two starters who were even on the Boston team at the beginning of the 2003 season.

This wasn't a team. It was a requirement for an eight-team Eastern Conference field.

And in the second round, the Pacers are facing a Heat squad that played its sixth game of the first round on May 2 in New Orleans. The Heat played their seventh game on May 4 in Miami. Then, they played their first game against the Pacers on May 6 in Indianapolis and second game on May 8.

For those of you keeping track at home, that's four playoff games in three different cities in seven days for a team that never won a road game against a .500 team all regular season.

Of course, the Pacers were going to blast the Celtics by an average of 16.7 points per game. Of course, they were going to hammer the Heat by an average of 12 in their first two games.

But what would have happened of they opened up against the Houston Rockets with 7-foot-6 Yao Ming in the middle instead of 6-foot-9 Brian Grant for the Heat. Or Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki at power forward at a playoff-best 26.6 points per game instead of Walter McCarty of the Celtics and his seven points per game.

It is true that the Pacers never lost more than two games in a row during the regular season. But it is also true that they played more then two consecutive opponents with a winning record only three times all season.

And in those 11 games, they were a very average 6-5.

That's right. Tonight will mark only the fourth time all year that they have faced three or more quality opponents in a row.

So it's easy to forget that the Pacers finished with the best regular-season record in the entire NBA. Easy to forget that they have won six playoff games in a row by double-digits. Easy to forget that in the process their best player, Jermaine O'Neal, has gone 10-for-32 from the field for 15 points and eight rebounds per game in the second round.

"I don't know why my shots aren't falling," O'Neal said. "I might be putting too much pressure on myself and causing me to lose part of my touch. I'll continue to work on it to get it corrected so we can continue our run toward the championship."

But you can't help but wonder if he had opened up the second round against Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett or Chris Webber rather than Lamar Odom, who is about to play in the 10th playoff game of his career.


* Heat need an edge on home floor
Sekou Smith / Indianapolis Star
* Heat strong at home; Pacers good on road
Chris Perkins / Palm Beach Post
* Here's the scary part: Heat is playing well
Dan LeBatard / Miami Herald
* A record-breaking pace
Mark Montieth / Indianapolis Star

Are the Spurs and Pistons still in control?

By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Monday, May 10
Updated: May 10
10:50 AM ET

Three weeks into the NBA postseason, every remaining team has now, thankfully, played at least two games in the second round.

You've already read countless times that we're viewing the longest playoff season in NBA history -- but now we have proof. Over the course of the last three weeks we've seen Tony Parker grow from superstar and shrink back to aging veteran in the course of the seven games the Spurs have played so far this postseason.

Here's Insider's look at what's going on in the playoffs, with the lottery teams sitting at home and the NBA draft as underclassmen have until midnight to declare.

The Playoffs
# Who's playing the best basketball? Before Sunday's games, it was pretty easy to make the argument that we were looking at a Pistons-Spurs Finals this year. Yes, the Pacers (the only team that hasn't lost) also look great but the Pistons' and Spurs' stifling defenses looked poised to carry them all the way to the Finals this year. Then the Lakers and Nets came out in Game 3 and plastered San Antonio and Detroit and we're all left scratching our heads a little bit.

It's just one playoff game . . . but does home court really make that much of a difference this late in the season? If the answer is yes, then the Timberwolves are screwed and the Pacers are on the verge of their first defeat at the hands of a red-hot Heat team at home.

# The Spurs' Tony Parker has been the story of the playoffs so far. Like Mike Bibby two years ago (who's not having such a bad playoff run himself), Parker has gone from the Spurs' wallflower to the most important player on the court in the playoffs. When he's aggressively pushing the ball, penetrating and hitting his 3s, I don't think there's a team in the league that can beat the Spurs in a seven-game series. Through the first six games, Parker was amazing. So what happened on Sunday? The Lakers finally got smart and physical with France's greatest import.


The key to slowing Tony Parker? Push him around a little bit.
Flash back to the Spurs' first-round scare versus the Suns last season and their tough series versus the Nets in the Finals. Parker struggled when Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd played very physically with him. Parker's biggest weaknesses are the fact that he's just 21-years-old and, like most European guards, hates contact. The Lakers finally got physical and Parker responded with an eight-point night on 4-for-12 shooting. It was Parker's first bad playoff performance of the year. If the Lakers want it to continue, keep knocking Tony to the floor.

# Speaking of coming-out parties, can anyone credibly argue that Jermaine O'Neal is an MVP candidate when he isn't the most valuable player on his own team? So far in the playoffs, O'Neal is averaging 18 ppg and 8.3 rpg on 41 percent shooting. Those averages are all significantly below what O'Neal did during the regular season when he averaged over 20 ppg and 10 rpg on 44 percent shooting. In the Miami series, his numbers have slipped to 15 ppg and eight rpg on 31 percent shooting -- and the Heat don't have one significant big man to guard him.

Meanwhile, Ron Artest continues to amaze. He's averaging 21.2 ppg, five rpg and 4.4 apg on 43 percent shooting. Those averages are all significantly higher than what he did in the regular season. And here's the kicker: What Artest does offensively is always secondary to what he does defensively for the Pacers. He sets the tone for the team. He has the ability to go out and shut down the most important player on the opposing team. Put that with the great offense and Artest, not O'Neal, should be getting the mention for MVP.

# While we're on the subject of clutch playoff performers, it's good to see Mike Bibby regaining his 2001-02 playoff form. That year Bibby went from averaging 13.7 ppg in the regular season to 20.3 ppg in the playoffs -- a pretty serious jump. He was awful in the playoffs last season, averaging just 12.7 ppg on 42 percent shooting.

This year, after recording a career year for the Kings in the regular season, he's outdone himself so far in the playoffs, averaging 23 ppg on 45 percent shooting. Bibby's already recorded two 30-point games in the playoffs, which is pretty amazing considering that the 36 points he scored against Dallas in Game 5 and his 33 points against Minnesota in Game 1 both surpassed anything he'd done the entire season. Bibby cracked 30 points only twice the entire regular season.

# I love Larry Brown and think he's done a fantastic job for the Pistons this year. But why did he go out of his way to start a controversy with his team up 2-0 in the series by first, ripping Nets head coach Lawrence Frank and second, flirting with the Knicks' job in the New York media?

The Nets looked pretty lifeless in the first two games, but the digging of their coach (who most of the players love) seems to have awakened them. The Knicks' speculation wasn't created by Brown -- he was asked a question by the N.Y. Daily News -- but his answer was a head scratcher. Larry's been in the league long enough to know what a paper like the Daily News was going to do with those comments.

Given his history of quick coaching stints, why even put it in the back of anyone's head? Just to clear up any confusion, Brown, who is in the first year of a five-year, $30 million contract, said that Detroit will be his last coaching gig in the NBA. "That was when I was a young kid," he said of his desire to be the Knicks' coach. "(Knicks legendary coach) Red Holzman helped teach me to play. But I am 63 years old. This is my last coaching stop."

Lottery Land
# Is it just a matter of time before David Stern calls in NATO to put a halt to the mass coaching carnage that is taking place? Toronto's Kevin O'Neill was the first to get kicked to the curb this summer followed by Philly's Chris Ford and Boston's John Carroll. Terry Stotts, who had the most tenure of any coaching in the Eastern Conference, was let go late last week. Tim Floyd got the axe, despite earning a fifth seed in the playoffs without all-star Jamal Mashburn, a day later.


The coaching carnage is likely to continue, and Jeff Bzdelik's name is at the top of the list.
Warriors head coach Eric Musselman is said to be the next coach to hit the curb and speculation still abounds that it's only a matter of time before Jeff Bzdelik, Lenny Wilkens and maybe even Phil Jackson pack their bags. In total, 22 coaches have lost their jobs in the space of just a little over a year. The fact that the number could rise to as many as 26 over the coming weeks has to scaring the hell out of the league.

# Hornets owner George Shinn replaced Floyd because he wants someone with more experience and a proven track record . . . someone like Paul Silas perhaps?

# Now three teams are without a head coach and two of them -- the Hornets and the Raptors -- don't have a GM in place to hire one. That's a problem on a number of fronts. One, it's crazy to hire a coach without the head guy in place. Two, now that two GM gigs and three coaching spots are open, suddenly the Raptors must now compete with other teams for the same people. Case in point. The Raptors had narrowed their GM list down to two scouts (the Nuggets' Jeff Weltman and the Wolves' Rob Babcock) but, according to the Toronto Star, they're not in love with either guy. That means that they may have to open the process back up.

The Star also reported over the weekend that Pistons vice president of basketball operations John Hammond may be back in the picture in Toronto. Hammond withdrew his name from consideration before the first interview was ever conducted, claiming that he was happy in Detroit. According to the report, the Raptors wanted Hammond initially and may come back and sweeten their offer for him. However, Hammond's name is also being mentioned prominently in connection with the Hornets' GM gig.

# Raise your hand if you thought Mark Cuban was going to massacre everyone in the Dallas front office and on the coaching bench after the Mavs' pitiful performance this year both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Folks inside the Mavs were quietly talking to media sources for weeks as they wrung their hands over the their fates.

Why hasn't the ax fallen? In part because Don Nelson has painted Cuban into a bit of a corner. Over the course of the past few years, Nelson has put together a team that only he can really coach? Pat Riley? Please. Riley is a great coach, but he'd want to blow up a team like the Mavs almost immediately. Riley loves players who play defense, and the 15 guys on the Mavs roster are among the league's worst defenders.

While Cuban isn't afraid to wheel and deal, he loves his core three -- Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley -- and doesn't want to trade them. Considering that none of the three is a great defender . . . I'm not sure who you can get who can coach this collection of players any better than Nelson. Besides, Cuban, who's a very active owner, was behind every personnel decision the Mavs have ever made. Is he going to fire himself?

# Here's a little prediction. The honeymoon between Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge will end before the season even begins. Rivers' little revelation to ESPN's Dr. Jack Ramsay that he was given final say on all personnel moves in Boston was quickly denied by both Rivers and Ainge. Ainge claimed he retains control and Rivers claimed that he was just talking about coaching personnel decisions. Ramsay stands by his story.

Who do you believe? Either Rivers was exaggerating in a moment where he felt like the tape recorders weren't rolling and was caught in a fib. Or, what Rivers said was true, but it wasn't supposed to get out. Or, Dr. Jack misunderstood what Rivers was trying to say. However you read the quotes from Rivers ("Everyone I talked with said that I had to have the authority to approve all personnel deals. So I have it in writing in my contract. Nothing happens without my yea or nay.") it sure doesn't sound like Rivers was talking about hiring assistant coaches. Either way, if you're Ainge, you can't be happy with the rocky start.

Draft Cards
# How bad do the Magic want the No. 1 overall pick in the draft? While many suspect that Emeka Okafor may be the guy who could help give the Magic that blue collar guy they've been missing since Ben Wallace left town -- the Magic may have other ideas.


Antoine Walker
Forward
Dallas Mavericks
Profile


2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
82 14.0 8.3 4.5 .428 .554

A quickly spreading rumor around the league has the Mavs offering Antoine Walker to the Magic in return for the No. 1 pick and Grant Hill.

Why would the the Magic do something like that? Because Walker is in the last year of his contract and Hill's salary has been a millstone around the team's neck for years. Players want to play in Orlando, but the team hasn't had enough cap room to make a significant offer to anyone decent in the open market. If the Magic were to pull the trigger on that deal, they'd be looking at roughly $15 million in cap room in the summer of 2005 to land a free agent to play alongside T-Mac.

If the Magic told T-Mac that he was free to recruit the teammate of his choice -- would it be enough to convince him not to opt out of his contract next summer? Why would the Mavs do it? Okafor is seen as the perfect fit for what ails the Mavs -- a tough, smart shot blocker who will clean up the glass and give the team a physical presence that they've lacked for years.

# The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is today and it looks like most of the fence sitters have made up their minds. Over the weekend, Providence's Ryan Gomes put his name in the draft. Several other prominent underclassmen or high school players, including Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf and high school players Randolph Morris, Glenn Davis and Darius Washington, all look like they are going to college next season.


Mile Ilic
# Add one interesting name to the list of international players in the draft. Serbia forward/center Mile Ilic. Ilic, a 20-year-old, 7-foot-1, 235-pounder playing for BC Reflex, has drawn the attention of several international scouts recently after an impressive game in March against Buducnost. Initially, the plan was for Ilic to stay in Europe one more season before declaring for the draft. However, strong interest by several teams in the mid first round prompted agent Marc Cornstein to put Ilic's name in.

# Another international underclassman to watch? Venezula's Miguel Marriaga has put his name in the draft. Marriaga is a 19-year-old, 6-foot-10, athletic forward who specializes in rebounding and shot blocking. Several international scouts claim that he's an interesting prospect. Like several other international players, he's working out in the U.S. right now in an attempt to help his draft stock.

# Maybe the NBA doesn't need Ivan Chiriaev after all. Russia's Chiriaev, the 7-foot-1, self proclaimed "point guard" playing high school basketball in Canads, torpedoed his draft stock over the weekend with a middling performance in a Canadian high school basketball game. A large contingent of NBA scouts and GMs made the trek to Canada to see Chiriaev play. Most walked away very disappointed. "He was very, very average," one scout old Insider. "He can do some amazing things in workouts, but I still haven't really seen in translate into a game. Unless I'm really missing something, this kid has no business declaring for the NBA draft."

What scouts will say is that watching Chiriaev in practice can be amazing. All year scouts who've made the trip to Canada claim that he's one of the best-shooting, best-ball handling big men they've ever seen. Based on his workout skills, Chiriaev earned a reputation as a possible lottery pick. However, the scouts who actually watched him play in games came away with a very different conclusion. "Lots of guys can hit shots in practice or dribble around cones," the scout told Insider. "The question is . . . can he do it in games? I'm not sure he can right now."

Chiriaev will get another chance to improve his stock in Chicago on May 22nd. His agent, Bill Duffy, has scheduled a workout for all 29 NBA teams -- and Insider has received an invite. This is a situation in which Chiriaev tends to look more impressive. But with the bad buzz coming out of Toronto right now . . . he better look like Toni Kukoc.