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When Michael Jordan announced his retirement, there was a misconception that other contending teams throughout the NBA rejoiced. Not the Pacers. "I'm disappointed," says coach Larry Bird. "I wanted to beat the Bulls at their best."
Indiana came excruciatingly close to doing just that in last year's Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers not only forced Chicago and His Airness to a seventh game, but they also led by three points midway through the fourth quarter. With revenge no longer a motive, Bird has settled on a new way to use Jordan's departure as a prod. "The only reason it's good that Michael retired is that now there's pressure on us to win it," he says. "I like that."
What's not to like about a squad that retains every significant member from last season? The club's key free agents, center Rik Smits and point guard Travis Best, were re-signed, and another veteran big man, 37-year-old Sam Perkins, was added. Perkins should provide perimeter production for a team that, at times, struggled to score.
The most daunting challenge facing Bird in his second year on the job is to keep the atmosphere surrounding his team as harmonious as it was in his rookie season. When Best emerged as a crunch-time point guard against the Bulls, the usual closer, veteran Mark Jackson, cheered him on from the bench. When Smits was sidelined with sore feet, Antonio Davis came in and flourished, then voluntarily stepped aside when Smits was able to return.
Yet Bird is aware that Davis wants to be a starter and that he might have to make a choice between Antonio and the other Davis—Dale—for the power forward job. Also pushing for more playing time is Jalen Rose, the versatile fifth-year swingman who was brilliant at times last season and who could well be the team's point guard of the future. For now that job remains in the capable hands of Jackson, who joins with hot-handed shooting guard Reggie Miller to form one of the premier backcourts in the league.
Indiana's starting lineup averages a grizzled 32.9 years of age, and that venerability could be a source of vulnerability. The 32-year-old Smits, who has been nagged throughout his career by foot injuries, says his off-season work with physical therapist Dan Dyrek, who used to help Bird with his balky back, has saved his career. If Smits goes down again, however, the Pacers immediately suffer, especially on offense.
There is one other detail from Game 7 against Chicago that haunts Indiana: a 22-4 advantage by the Bulls on the offensive glass. The Pacers were the third-worst rebounding team in the league last season, and nobody needs to remind them that that's no way to contend for a championship.
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