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Pacers seek to maintain torrid Pace
By Roscoe Nance, USA TODAY
The Indiana Pacers have all the ingredients to be a championship team: tenacious defense, perimeter shooting and an inside presence. They had that last season, not that it mattered. They faltered in the second half and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after being tied with New Jersey for the best record in the East at the All-Star break.
Once again the Pacers (36-13 after Monday's defeat of the Lakers) are atop the East as the All-Star game approaches and with essentially the same roster as last year. So what's to keep them from imploding again?
That question might have been answered last June when Larry Bird, who coached the Pacers to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000, returned as president of basketball operations.
Rick Carlisle tackled perhaps the biggest challenge of his new job the day after he was hired to coach the Pacers in September.
Before winning any games, he had to win over Indiana's franchise player, Jermaine O'Neal.
The East's premier big man felt betrayed by the team when Isiah Thomas, the coach who made him an All-Star, was fired shortly after O'Neal signed a seven-year contract with the Pacers instead of going to the San Antonio Spurs. O'Neal had bloomed into a force at both ends of the court under Thomas' guidance.
Carlisle called O'Neal in Puerto Rico, where he was with the U.S. Olympic qualifying team. The two hit it off immediately.
"He's shown me since the first phone call he's about winning," said Carlisle. "As a new coach in a new situation who came into it late, that means a lot from a guy who is a franchise player."
The new partnership has produced an East-best record for the Pacers — and no regrets from O'Neal. "That ended Day 2," he said. "Even though the situation was dealt with like that, (president) Donnie Walsh was the only one to give me an opportunity."
Walsh traded All-Star Dale Davis for a still young and unproven O'Neal in 2000, just two months after the Pacers reached the NBA Finals and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Carlisle, O'Neal, 25, is enjoying another All-Star season, and Indiana is off to another huge start.
"The staff the last three years molded this team and got it prepared, and Rick came along and polished the team as far as discipline on the defensive end of the floor," O'Neal said. "He's taught us about patience and defense, and that's something we lacked the last couple years."— Greg Boeck, USA TODAY
The no-nonsense Hall of Famer made it clear from the outset that he would not tolerate the bickering and bad behavior — and the losing — that went on last season.
"I like our team," Bird says. "I think we have all the talent in the world. It's just a matter of making the commitment to play together on the offensive and defensive ends."
With that in mind, Bird fired Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Famer who succeeded him as coach, and hired former Detroit Pistons coach Rick Carlisle, his teammate on the Boston Celtics and his assistant coach with the Pacers for three seasons.
"I know how he runs things," Bird says. "I like the offense he is running, and I like how organized he is. He knows I don't put up with a lot of (nonsense). I expect players to do what they're supposed to do. He's basically the same way."
Carlisle is delivering just as Bird expected. He has forged the Pacers into one of the NBA's top defensive teams. They gamble less than they did under Thomas and entered Monday holding opponents to 43.0% shooting from the field and 84.9 points a game, third in the league.
The Pacers responded to Carlisle by becoming the first team in the league with 30 victories and the first to win 16 road games. Minnesota, at 17-8, and the Pacers at 16-8 lead the league on the road.
Indiana has split its two games against both the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Western Division leaders, and generally is considered the one team in the East that can win the NBA title.
"I don't think there's any question they are a legitimate contender," Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy says. "If you look at their roster and you look at their depth, they have the kind of team that can play with the West teams.
"They have the size. They have the inside scoring. They have enough perimeter shooting. They're one of the two or three best defensive teams in the league, and they're physical. All the things that over the years have led to playoff success, they've got."
They also have confidence in themselves.
"We're not afraid of the West," said All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal, who missed Monday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers after straining vertebrae in his neck in Saturday's 99-98 victory against Boston. "We feel, in a seven-game series, we can beat anybody. It's just a question of playing the kind of basketball we're capable of playing.
"We feel we're just as physical as any other team. We feel we have just as much talent, depth, perimeter play and post play. It's just a matter of going out and playing."
Bird changes team's attitude
Bird has not changed the Pacers roster significantly. The only personnel moves have been acquiring center Scot Pollard from Sacramento in a three-team, sign-and-trade deal that sent All-Star Brad Miller to the Kings. Indiana also acquired free-agent point guards Kenny Anderson and Anthony Johnson during the offseason. But there clearly has been an attitude change in Indiana, which Carlisle says can be traced directly to Bird.
"One thing that's universal with NBA players is they want to be dealt with directly, and they want to be dealt with straight," Carlisle says. "Larry is the type of guy who's going to tell you the truth. He's not going to waste words. Guys appreciate that."
Bird's first test was O'Neal, who was upset that Thomas was fired. O'Neal had been a free agent and re-signed with the Pacers before Thomas was let go. He said had he known Thomas wasn't going to be his coach, he would have signed elsewhere.
Bird's response: "You're a basketball player. You get paid to play. You come in and play."
Bird says he understood O'Neal's feelings and was a little concerned how things would play out.
"In the back of my mind," he says, "I'm wondering, 'What if he comes in here and doesn't want to play, doesn't want practice and is not going along with the program?' I'm not the type of guy who's going to baby-sit these guys."
But it never came to a showdown. O'Neal bought into the Bird-Carlisle program and is having an MVP-type season, averaging 20.4 points (15th in the league) and 10.4 rebounds (seventh in the league) entering Monday.
Forward Ron Artest was another potential problem for Bird. One of the league's more versatile — and emotional — players as well as one of its top defenders, he committed seven flagrant fouls last season. This season he is holding his emotions, as well as opponents, in check. He hasn't committed any flagrant fouls and could be named to the All-Star team today when the reserves are announced.
Bird doesn't take credit for Artest's transformation. He says he told Artest what he expected during training camp, the same as he told all the Pacers, and Artest has done the rest.
"Ronnie has a lot of people talking to him," Bird says. "He decided that it's best for him and the team if he just plays basketball. We can't have the disruptions that we had last season."
Artest has been involved in two minor incidents. After disagreeing with a personal foul called against him in the first preseason game, he was called for a technical foul for protesting the call — by feinting as though he were going to throw the ball to the referee but pulling it back, Harlem Globetrotter-style.
Carlisle immediately removed him from the game. Later, Artest said perhaps he needed to play somewhere else.
In December, Artest overslept and missed shoot-around two days after criticizing the Pacers' slow-pace offense, which featured Carlisle calling virtually every play. Artest was fined and didn't start the next game.
Feelings were smoothed over during a meeting among Artest, Carlisle, Bird and Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh.
"Things happen," Carlisle says. "You talk about them, and you move on. Any issues we've had with Ron have been quickly cleared up by talking about it."
The turnaround in behavior actually started late last season, when Artest promised himself this year would be different.
"People change over time," Artest says. "I'm more experienced now. As a man, you have to help yourself. I want that big trophy now."
First round not good enough
Carlisle has proven he knows how to get teams out of the first round. He guided the Pistons to the conference finals last season and the second round the season before after winning 50 games each year.
"[size=18:30a38ba74e]Rick is very consistent with us," Pacers forward Al Harrington says. "He keeps a steady hand with us. Regardless of who we're playing, he keeps everything the same. That makes it easier for us. We're not changing up every night. That makes guys more comfortable in their roles."[/size]
Carlisle is pleased with what the Pacers have accomplished, but he's not losing sight of the big picture.
"I have a strong belief in our ability to contend at the highest levels in this league if we play at our full capacity and if we defend at a high level," he says. "Right now our No. 1 focus is to get to the playoffs and win in the first round."
The Pacers were ousted in the first round the last three years, including losing to Boston in six games last season despite homecourt advantage.
"We understand we made a lot of mistakes," 17-year veteran Reggie Miller says. "We have something to prove. No one likes to continue to lose in the first round."
Indiana's second-half struggles coincided with some players' calamities off the court and others' bad behavior on it.
Point guard Jamaal Tinsley missed six games to be with his mother, who lost her battle with cancer. O'Neal had to deal with his stepfather's attempted suicide.
On the court, Artest was in the midst of being suspended for a total of 12 games for behavior that included making physical contact with then-Miami coach Pat Riley, making an obscene gesture toward Heat fans and breaking a TV camera following a game in New York.
"All that disrupted our team dramatically at the wrong time," Walsh says. "We were on the road for an extended time. The team got fragmented because when you start losing, people start pointing fingers."
The Pacers lost 12 of 13 games from Feb. 16-March 12 and didn't win more than three consecutive games after the All-Star break.
"It was very surprising," says Johnson, who last season played for the New Jersey Nets. "We definitely kept eye an on them. You can understand when you lose a couple in a row, but they were losing like six, seven in a row. Things were really going downhill for them."
The Pacers say as difficult as their collapse was, it has proven beneficial in helping make them mentally tougher.
"As a group we've grown," Tinsley says. "All the stuff that bothered us last year isn't happening this year. When we get in tough situations, instead of complaining and bickering, we're just going out there and playing."
Harrington says the Pacers realize the importance of staying focused and playing hard each game.
"As players we may have taken things for granted a little bit," Harrington says.