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If you have never read the Toronto papers than you might not know, they are as critical if not more critical than anything you'll see from New York, Philadelphia or Boston. These articles aren't, but they are really critical most of the time.
As a testament to his obsessive devotion to the hardwood's art, Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill has often boasted that he partakes in no hobbies.
So Rick Carlisle, O'Neill's best friend and the coach of the Indiana Pacers, appears a veritable renaissance man by comparison. Not only does Carlisle own an NBA championship ring from his turn on the bench with the 1986 Boston Celtics, he's also an accomplished pianist, a bowler of sufficient repute to own a monogrammed bag and shoes, and a scratch golfer with enough of an appreciation for the game's history to name one of his dogs after Canadian ball-striking wizard Moe Norman.
So when they spend time together in the summer, as these two natives of upstate New York say they often do, the well-rounded Carlisle sometimes tries to remove the blinders from the single-minded O'Neill. The results, so far, have been unsurprisingly futile.
"(Carlisle) took a whole year to get me to take up golf and we'd play every time we were together," said O'Neill last night, before his Raptors lost 83-77 to his pal's Pacers at the Air Canada Centre. "I'd end up pissed, throwing clubs, whooping it up and he'd be like, `You can't act like that out here.' Bulls--- I can't."
Such is the fun when the odd couple of the NBA bench share a holiday. O'Neill's the public potty mouth, the hot-blooded diet Coke addict who'll subdue himself, one assumes, when he's dead. Carlisle's the relative mute, the 2002 coach of the year who was run out of Detroit in 2003 after complaints within the organization that he was too cold in his dealings with colleagues and the media alike.
Last night the coaches squared off in an intriguing sideline chess match. It was only last season that O'Neill was Carlisle's lead assistant in Detroit; the systems their respective teams now employ are strikingly similar. So every time the Pacers took possession, O'Neill would glance down the sideline at his old buddy, who'd be holding up a hand signal that O'Neill clearly recognized. And as O'Neill shouted the name of the Pacers' pending play to his troops, Carlisle would bark counter orders to his.
But it wasn't a fair fight. The Pacers have been one of the best teams in the league this season; the under-manned Raptors are over-achieving at a couple of games under .500. And while Carlisle, who'll be the Eastern Conference coach at next weekend's NBA All-Star Game, got big-time performances from the pair of Pacers who'll be on the all-star roster — 27 points from Ron Artest and 20 points and 12 rebounds from Jermaine O'Neal — the Raptors were let down by the sulky work of hometown all-star Vince Carter, who was held to 18 points by a combination of Artest's relentless defence and Carter's own apparent indifference.
O'Neill slammed the scorer's table early and often. "Guard your (expletive) man!" he yelled after Artest scored yet again.
And though the Raptors rallied late — coming back from a deficit as big as 15 to cut the gap to two — their out-of-control antics, a Milt Palacio turnover here, a couple of Carter-forced clanks there, quieted the Air Canada Centre before the buzzer sounded.
"Run the (expletive) play," O'Neill hollered in the midst of that fizzling surge.
Meanwhile down the floor, the seemingly unflappable Carlisle watched the action like a researcher observing his lab rats.
Said O'Neill of his friend: "I always say that I'd like to be him for a day, he might like to be me for a day, but he would enjoy being me so (expletive) much that he wouldn't go back to being him. I have a lot more fun than that guy does, I'll tell you that right now."
In their last five games, the Raptors have won two and lost three. The defeats are more important than the wins, and the losses say more about the team than the victories.
With an 83-77 loss at the hands of the Indiana Pacers last night, the Raptors have now been bested over that span by three of the league's better teams — Indiana, Detroit and the Los Angeles Lakers. Their wins have come against Philadelphia and Orlando, two squads that are floundering.
They're squarely in the middle of the NBA pack, an Eastern Conference playoff spot not certain, and it's a place where no one seems comfortable, or happy.
"We've had three of these against quality teams at home in the last two weeks where we've had chances to win the game but we don't make enough plays," head coach Kevin O'Neill said. "We have to get over that hump and start making those plays against quality teams."
Despite a fourth quarter that saw them make a real run at Indiana, the Raptors shot the ball horribly for three frames, got poor production from their backcourt and saw Vince Carter, their leading scorer, held to just seven field goals by all-star Ron Artest.
"They want to lean on you the whole time and try and wear you down," said Jalen Rose, a former Pacer. He also had a bad night, making just four of 15 shots and finishing with 11 points. "We just didn't get enough multiple efforts from guys, myself included, in order to get us over the hump. And that's the frustrating part."
In contrast, the Pacers sent the ball to Artest with regularity — he made 10 of his 15 shots to lead all scorers with 27 points — and into the post for another all-star, Jermaine O'Neal, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Al Harrington came off the bench to score 19 points and Jamaal Tinsley had 11, including a 25-foot three-pointer that effectively sealed the game.
"That was a gutsy shot and not an easy shot," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said of Tinsley's make that put the Pacers ahead by five points. "He came back in cold. I kept him out with four minutes to go and it was big, the shot of the game."
Before tipoff, O'Neill, who was Carlisle's lead assistant for two years when both were in Detroit, said his team needed to shoot well to stay with Indiana because the Pacers would rely on their post strength. They did just that, outscoring the Raptors 42-32 in the paint.
For much of the first half, Toronto shot less than 30 per cent from the floor, and that allowed Indiana to open up a 14-point lead. The second half — especially the fourth quarter — was better, with Toronto outscoring Indiana 21-16 in the final frame, but it wasn't enough.
O'Neill blamed the loss on his team's inability to play tough. He called it playing with "force," and refused to call out any of his team. But it's clear the Raptors, particularly Carter, have to stand up to the league's tough players — players like Artest.
"We have to play with force, all the time," O'Neill said. "It's very difficult to play with force if you don't really stand up to people and go at them. We really didn't stand up to people and go at them the way we needed to."
Carter made just seven of his 17 field-goal attempts and only got to the free-throw line four times. He finished with 18 points, six assists and a rebound.
"We had the opportunity to get back in the game, and we have to take advantage of that," Carter said. "We didn't take advantage of it and maybe next time we can get a win.
"They can be beat. We can play with them. We know that. We've just got to fine-tune a couple of things and go at them again."
Pacers pack 1-2 punch
Artest, O'Neal hoping to lead Indiana to title Team tries hard to erase memory
of playoff swoon
It is a luxury that sets the Indiana Pacers apart from the rest of the Eastern Conference and one that may eventually allow them to play for an NBA championship.
It is a two-headed all-star monster, one a sublime offensive player, the other a hard-nosed defender, and it was on display in all its glory at the Air Canada Centre last night.
Jermaine O'Neal, who had a ho-hum 20-point, 14-rebound night, and Ron Artest, who defended Vince Carter as well as anyone has, were the difference as the Pacers pulled out an 83-77 win over a game, but undermanned Raptor squad.
"We have a couple of all-star players who played great games tonight," said coach Rick Carlisle. "Artest did a great job on Vince and Jermaine just played his heart out."
Artest harassed Carter into a 7-for-17 night from the floor and even though the Raptor all-star scored 18 points, Carter had to work for every single one of them.
"I thought Ron Artest played a monster game at both ends of the floor," said Carlisle. "He was able to stay with Vince and make it tough on him all night long."
Those are the two cornerstones of a team that, right now, is head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. Their 37-14 record includes a 17-9 mark on the road, tying them with Minnesota for the best road record in the league.
"One of our goals right from the start, and we've said all along, was to be a good road team," said Carlisle.
And the Pacers have done just that by playing controlled, and smart, down the stretch during close games in hostile environments. After giving up a 10-0 run to the Raptors that pared a 12-point lead to two with about 2 1/2 minutes to go, the Pacers simply made key plays the rest of the way. They held Toronto to one point in that span and got a couple of huge buckets.
That kind of end-of-game execution is the big difference between this year's Indiana team and last year's.
The Pacers are in the same situation this season they were a year ago — when they got out to a 31-14 start, led the East comfortably at the all-star break but faded badly, going 11-17 down the stretch and losing their first round playoff series to Boston in six games.
O'Neal said yesterday morning the team learned from that collapse.
"Last year we were in a different position," said the starting power forward for the East in next weekend's All-Star Game. "I think in my first three years I'd never been in that position, of having one of the best records in the NBA, let alone the Eastern Conference, so we didn't know what it took to maintain our record.
"Now, there's so much talk about us and our second half that we know what we have to do, we know that we have to take one game at a time to finish the season strong.
We have an extremely deep, talented team and there's no reason that we shouldn't keep up the pace that we're at."
With more depth than any team in the East everyone expects the Pacers to at least make it to the Eastern final.
"I don't think anybody on our team is worried about the (slump) we had (last season)," said O'Neal. "There's no way we can do that unless everybody gets hurt, season-ending injuries and stuff like that.''