Pacers try to fight off distractionsPosted: Monday February 10, 2003 7:16 PM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Indiana's resurgence as one of the NBA's elite teams has drawn considerable attention, but not always for the right reasons.
Everything from Indiana's physical play to bizarre antics has earned the Pacers a reputation as one of the league's toughest -- and most combustible -- teams.
"We're just stepping on to the national stage," coach Isiah Thomas said.
The Pacers' act so far has been smashing, both on and off the court. Indiana starts the second half of the season at 34-15, tied with New Jersey atop the Eastern Conference. Only the 1997-98 Pacers had a better record at the break at 34-13.
That team reached the Eastern Conference finals. This year's squad would like to repeat that performance.
"Once we get everyone back to full strength, we'll make a go at this Eastern Conference," said Miller, in his 16th season. "I think it's wide open and there are a handful of teams that can challenge for it. We're one of them."
Only if they have a full and focused roster.
When Cleveland visits Indiana on Tuesday, forward Ron Artest and Thomas will return from league suspensions, and reserve Jonathan Bender is likely to be activated from the injured list.
Injuries, suspensions and off-court problems have overshadowed Indiana's turnaround after two mediocre seasons.
Artest has brought the most notoriety.
He was suspended for seven games in January: Three games for hurling a television monitor and smashing a television camera, and four games for confronting the Miami Heat bench and brushing up against coach Pat Riley during a victory Jan. 27, then making an obscene gesture toward the Miami crowd.
Thomas was suspended for two games for escalating an on-court altercation and not acting as a peacemaker during a fight with the Toronto Raptors.
Miller has missed 12 games and O'Neal four games with injures. The only Indiana player who hasn't missed a game is Al Harrington, who was recovering from a torn ACL.
The Pacers are hoping the distractions won't be their downfall.
"We've got to understand that every game, it's going to be something else to put up with," said O'Neal, an All-Star starter.
"We've just got to fight through it and stay with it, as tough as it may be. We can't let stupid things get in our way."
The schedule may be Indiana's biggest obstacle.
Indiana, one game ahead of Detroit in the Central Division, is 12-10 against teams with winning records. While they're an impressive 22-3 at home, the Pacers are 12-12 on the road.
They play 11 of first 16 games in the second half on the road, including a West Coast trip with consecutive games against the Lakers, Portland and Sacramento.
"It's not going to be easy, but it will show us what we're really made of," O'Neal said. "We have a chance to really prove we belong as a title contender."
The Pacers play at New Jersey on Feb. 20. The Nets have the tiebreaker advantage, having beaten the Pacers on Nov. 1. The teams will also play April 16 at Indianapolis.
Their first meeting included an altercation that featured the ejection of three players, including Jason Kidd and Indiana's Erick Strickland.
It was the beginning of a string of confrontations for the Pacers that, along with their banging and bruising style of play, has earned them comparisons to Thomas' old Bad Boy Detroit Pistons' teams.
Those parallels have been dismissed by the Pacers. The Polite Pacers works best. When one of his players is whistled for a technical, Thomas makes his players apologize to the officials.
"He just wants us to play hard. If anything, he wants us to play real, real smart," Artest said. "He wants to be intelligent out there. He wants us to keep our aggressiveness. But as far as hurting people, getting flagrant fouls, he's not really for that."
Thomas said the Pacers have nothing to regret about how they've played this year.
"Everything that we've done has been correct. Everything that we've done has been right, and everything that we've done we've been very proud of," Thomas said.
Miller believes if the Pacers channel their aggressiveness toward the game and not get bothered by other teams or officials, a championship could be in the offing.
"I think if we can stay focused and understand what the ultimate goal and ultimate prize is at the end of the rainbow, I think we have a shot," he said.