As the Lakers' drama snagged the playoff attention last week, a key piece of role-playing was taking place in the East, where a streetball wiz who didn't even finish high school was quietly running one of the NBA's most disciplined offenses. Indiana Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsley is like a world-class pianist who never learned to read music. He gets effective results—but often in unconventional ways.
"He may have played as good a game as he's played for us all year," said coach Rick Carlisle, shaking his head last Saturday as he studied Tinsley's stats from Indiana's 91-80 win over the Miami Heat in their Eastern Conference semifinal. After helping Indiana take the opener 94-81 by burying 5 of 6 three-pointers and scoring 17 points, Tinsley attempted only one shot and scored only one point in Game 2. Still, he dominated play, handing out nine assists without a turnover, making three steals and slowing the tempo, helping to limit the Heat to a measly eight fast-break points. (In Indiana's 94-87 loss at Miami in Game 3 on Monday night, which cut the Pacers' lead in the series to 2-1, Tinsley racked up 16 points and five assists.)
Such success was hard to envision during the season's first two months, when the newly hired Carlisle, looking for a more polished playmaker, sat Tinsley for all but four games while veterans Kenny Anderson and Anthony Johnson led the Pacers to a 21-8 start. The demotion shocked the more talented Tinsley, 26, who had led Indiana in assists for two straight years under Carlisle's predecessor, Isiah Thomas. "I didn't think I had to prove anything," says Tinsley. Yet he spent those relatively idle weeks honing his jump shot and running on the treadmill without complaint while studying Carlisle's principles: Play under control, avoid mistakes and work the ball inside to Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest and Al Harrington.
"I would never tell Rick who to play," says Pacers president Larry Bird. "Once I asked him, 'Are you taking a look at Jamaal?' And he said, 'Oh, I love Jamaal. He's the best.' "
When Anderson hurt his right calf in late December, then Johnson strained his abdomen, Tinsley stepped in and proved that he'd learned to do things his coach's way. "I'm more patient now," says Tinsley, who went 34-9 as a starter. "My first year I was always trying for the big play. I remember Reggie Miller saying, 'Hit singles instead of the home run.' " Not only did Tinsley produce an acceptable assists-to-turnover ratio of 2.8 this season, but he also shot a career-high 41.4%. At 6'3" and 192 pounds—16 fewer than last season—he is in the best shape of his career. "I'm the type of person who can handle adversity," Tinsley says. "Some people break down because of it, but it makes me stronger."
Tinsley's biological father and stepfather died in a four-month span when he was nine; four years later he moved out of his mother's crowded New York City apartment and lived with friends and in the streets for several years, once spending five nights in jail for being in the company of an acquaintance who was arrested for armed robbery. (Charges against Tinsley were dropped.) Though he had rarely attended high school, Tinsley made a life-changing decision and earned his GED while attending Mount San Jacinto ( Calif.) College. He played two years there, then spent the next two at Iowa State before going 27th in the '01 draft.
Bird wouldn't be shocked to see Tinsley named to the All-Star team in a couple of years. "He's one of those point guards you always want to play with," Bird says. "He's a great distributor, he pushes it when it needs to be pushed, and when he wants to play defense, he can really get after it." With Tinsley orchestrating the offense against the Heat, conventional wisdom—and the Pacers—should prevail.