All season long Isiah Thomas had talked about preparing his Indiana Pacers for the playoffs. It was a complicated job: Along the way he had to learn how to coach, teach three players who never went to college how to play and reorganize the team following the loss of three starters from last year's Eastern Conference champs. Thomas faced his first postseason exam last Saturday, and he aced it as the Pacers upset Philadelphia 79-78 to take a surprising 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Thomas didn't seem surprised. His team had endured a frustrating regular season with a .500 record while he tried to rebuild with old and new parts. Against the Sixers last Saturday, however, he gave all but 56 of the minutes to veterans such as Reggie Miller, who missed 16 of 20 shots before knocking down the game-winning three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left. The only youngster to play more than nine minutes was 22-year-old center Jermaine O'Neal (below), who produced 20 rebounds and three blocks in a virtual standoff with the 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo (22 boards, five blocks). "When I got traded here, I wanted to be back in the same position the team was in last year, trying to win the NBA championship," says O'Neal, who came to Indiana in a preseason trade for Dale Davis that now looks like a steal. "I've had 82 practice games to get ready for the real season, and the real season is now."
O'Neal's spectacular performance in the paint—in his first playoff start, no less—helped the Pacers satisfy all three of Thomas's criteria for victory: to negate the 76ers' advantage on the boards, to limit their opportunities at the foul line ( Philadelphia made 15 free throws, only three more than Indiana) and to avoid turnovers despite Philadelphia's intense half-court pressure. Travis Best was superb in meeting the last of those challenges. Though he almost didn't play because of a lower back strain, Best responded to a rare start with 16 points and 10 assists, and the Pacers committed just seven turnovers.
Almost as surprising as the Pacers' comeback from an 18-point deficit to win in Philadelphia is the fact that they're in the playoffs at all. At times this year Indiana looked dreadful, and it was reported that Thomas was losing control of the team as well as the faith of team president Donnie Walsh. Those reports were angrily denied by Walsh, who, after all, had hired Thomas with the understanding that the team might have to take a step back while O'Neal, Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender (average age: 21) were developing. Thomas's retooled Pacers seemed to hit stride late in the year, closing out the regular season with an 8-2 run that earned him NBA Coach of the Month honors. "We're not developing our team like everyone else does," Thomas said last Friday of his experimentation with myriad lineups. (He used another new set of starters last Saturday, the 18th this season.) "We want basketball players. We don't want guys who can only play with certain guys."
With the Pacers having seized the home court advantage, the series will turn on the outcome of the two games at Conseco Fieldhouse. The 76ers were the NBAs best road team with 27 wins this year, but that won't help unless Allen Iverson finds a way to overcome the constant double-teaming that held him to 19 shots and 16 points last Saturday.
If those numbers weren't bad enough, one more stat looms darkly for the Sixers. In Indiana's 25-year NBA history, the Pacers have played in 23 playoff series. In every one of them, the team that won Game I won the series.