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Pacers seek the chemistry that can bring them a title- Montieth
They'll be reminded everywhere they turn in Conseco Fieldhouse this season, by words painted in big, block, blue letters with gold trim.
The messages are on the walls in the locker room, the weight room and the practice court. The one over the doorway leading from the locker room to the playing court summarizes the theme for a campaign in which the mission is to nudge themselves a little further after one of the most successful seasons in the franchise's NBA history.
"Be a Great Teammate."
That concept is open to interpretation, of course, and different players will have a different idea of how to go about it. But team president Larry Bird and coach Rick Carlisle know exactly what it means to them, having played on championship teams in Boston.
It's about sacrifice. Of a role, of playing time, of shots . . . anything, if it contributes to the greater good.
The players on the Celtics team that won the NBA championship in 1986 agreed in January of that season to stop drinking until the final playoff game as a unified show of dedication and discipline. In June, having defeated Houston in the Finals, they were pouring champagne over one another in celebration.
"The way you get to be the best team is to have the best chemistry and have guys willing to give and take a little bit," Bird said.
And so begins the Pacers' season of sharing.
The Pacers won a franchise-record 61 games last season, swept Boston in the first round of the playoffs, eliminated a rapidly improving Miami team in six games in the second round, then faced Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Pacers believe the greatest factor in their six-game series loss to the eventual champions was health.
All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal suffered a hyperextended left knee in a Game 4 win in Detroit. He played reasonably well in the remaining two games, averaging 15.5 points and 8.0 rebounds, but wasn't at full strength. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley played the entire series with injuries to his left ankle, knee and hamstring. His play dropped off significantly from earlier rounds -- he averaged 6.8 points and 3.5 assists -- and he played just three minutes in the final loss.
Still, the Pistons looked like a team that had been there before, which indeed they had the previous season -- under Carlisle. The Pacers, meanwhile, were fraying around the edges. They were playing against the best half-court defense in the league but still missed enough open shots to qualify for self-destruction.
They hit just 35 percent of their attempts in the series, including 27 percent of their 3-pointers. After winning Game 4 in Detroit to tie the series, they managed just 65 points in each of the final two games.
Carlisle has adjusted his offense to induce more movement and balance, but he wants the players to tweak the intangibles to extract more points, too.
They shouldn't need major improvements to win a championship, just a lot of little ones.
A little more health and a little more luck, sure, but also a little more teamwork, a little more patience, a little more poise and a little more camaraderie.
"The chemistry has to be better than it was last year," Bird said. "They won 61 games, but at times I thought they got a little selfish out there.
"I know we have a good team here. It's obvious we have a lot of players who can play. It just all depends on the guys. They all seem like good guys, but on the court are they going to be able to play with each other every night and stay together? If that happens, they've got a good shot this year."
Rewards of teamwork
If the Pacers need to hear the message from someone other than their team president, they can turn their collective ear toward Miami. Shaquille O'Neal, winner of three league championships in Los Angeles before the team chemistry exploded last season, knows the formula for winning a title.
"The main ingredient is sticking together," O'Neal said. "Talent will only win you 40-50 games. You have to put that talent together and stick together and everybody has to be willing to sacrifice. I see that from this group."
He meant his group, in Miami. Detroit, meanwhile, established a template for teamwork in dismantling the Lakers in the Finals last season, making "total team effort" the NBA's latest cliché. The Pacers played much the same way as the Pistons, only not quite as well or for quite as long. Now they have more firsthand evidence of what it takes.
Bird and Carlisle already had it, from having played on those championship teams in Boston. Each of the three titles Bird won was distinct, but if he had to pick one that is most relevant to what the Pacers are trying to accomplish, it would be the one from 1986.
That team was loaded with talent. Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish are in the Hall of Fame and some believe Dennis Johnson should be. The other starter was Danny Ainge, now the Celtics' director of basketball operations. The bench included Carlisle and Jerry Sichting, now an assistant coach at Minnesota. It also included Bill Walton, whose career at Portland earned him Hall of Fame induction.
Along with drinking, the Celtics also sacrificed individual glory. All five starters averaged in double figures during the regular season, and any one of them qualified as a go-to guy if matchups and circumstances required it. Their rotation went just eight deep, but they had enough depth to conduct competitive practices as well as rest starters during the regular season.
"The only thing that mattered to that team was winning the last game of the season," Carlisle said. "To get to that point there were a lot of small sacrifices and a lot of big sacrifices made along the way.
"There was a sense of obligation between the starting team and the bench team that everybody had a job to do and things like individual statistics never entered the conversation that year."
The depths of sacrifice
The Pacers' quest for ultimate unity is made more difficult by their depth.
They have perhaps the best bench in the NBA, certainly a good thing. It gives them leverage, making them less dependent on any one or two players and more able to withstand injuries. That was proved last season when they went 10-2 in games O'Neal or Artest missed.
But it also requires players to accept limitations on playing time and scoring. Al Harrington struggled with that last season, which led to his trade. Harrington ranked third on the team in minutes played and scoring as the top reserve, but he was frustrated to still be coming off the bench in his sixth NBA season.
Moving him to Atlanta for Stephen Jackson appears to have brought a significant change to the team's chemistry. Jackson was the starting shooting guard on San Antonio's championship team two seasons ago and is the only Pacer with a ring. His willingness to come off the bench after starting the past two seasons sets an example.
"You always have to sacrifice something to get something," he said.
In Jackson's prejudiced opinion, the Pacers are better than those Spurs, largely because of their depth.
"I'm not saying this because I'm here now," he said. "But we are better and deeper and younger. (The Spurs) had a great player in Tim Duncan and a Hall of Famer in David Robinson, but we have 13 or 14 guys who can go."
Other Pacers already have showed a willingness to surrender to a greater cause. Reggie Miller, the franchise's all-time leading scorer and a widely projected Hall of Famer, began making a graceful transition to a subordinate role three seasons ago. Austin Croshere has learned to live with erratic minutes. Scot Pollard swallowed his pride and bit his tongue throughout last season after he was pulled from the starting lineup after the first two games. Jeff Foster, who replaced Pollard as a starter, experienced a diminished role in the conference finals, playing just two minutes in Game 6.
This season, O'Neal and Artest figure to take their turn. They'll still be the focal points of the offense, but slightly less so than before. The system will have them setting screens and looking for open cutters more often, and their scoring averages could drop.
O'Neal, an All-Star the past three seasons and third in the MVP voting a year ago, is OK with that. He averaged more than 20 points each of the past two seasons but says he's most interested in boosting his field goal percentage, which dropped to a career-low .434 last season.
"Whatever needs to happen for this team to be successful, whether it's scoring more points or scoring less points, is OK with me," he said.
"This is (an offense) where every player can benefit from it. It makes my job easier. I don't have to bang, bang, bang all day long to get a shot off. I'll take whatever's given to me on any particular night. The more I can get my teammates involved and increase my shooting percentage, I'm still making everybody happy."
Artest on board
Artest's ability to adapt could be the most crucial element to the Pacers' season. He was the focal point of the loss to Detroit after he hit just 29.8 percent of his shots in the series and complained of not being on the same page with his teammates. That issue was exacerbated by his absence from a few of the final practices and his decision not to fly with the team to Detroit for Game 6.
His aggressive mind-set and confidence led him to take some questionable shots against the Pistons. While nobody within the Pacers' organization blamed him for the loss, his name crops up occasionally in conversation -- such as when Bird discusses the need for better offensive balance.
"Say if Ronnie doesn't have his shot that night, he has to find ways to do things (to help the team)," Bird said. "But it's not just Ronnie, it's everybody.
"We have enough firepower here that if you're not having a good shooting night, do something else to help your teammates."
Artest often has said he wants to have the offense run through him, and he talked of wanting to lead the league in scoring this season. But he later said he didn't give Carlisle's offense a fair chance last season, adding, "I should keep my mouth shut a little bit."
For now, he says he doesn't mind if he gets fewer shots, and he is on board with the emphasis of making teammates better. He also believes the players are closer because of the experience gained last season. And while he was close to Harrington, he already has formed a tight bond and understanding with Jackson, whose locker is just around the corner from his.
"I feel I can't lose, having him on my team," Artest said. "I feel real, real confident."
So do the rest of the Pacers, who appear to have hit a sweet spot in their development. They're young, aside from Miller, but playoff-tested. Their core has been together long enough to establish cohesion, but they haven't accomplished enough that complacency should be an issue. They're widely regarded as one of the top three teams in the league, and have a sobering opportunity. With the possible exception of the lockout season of 1999, they appear to have their best chance to win a championship in the franchise's NBA history.