The quickening of Indiana's pace

They're where they want to be. But not for long. The Indiana Pacers have all but clinched the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but no one has to tell them that there's more, much more at stake.

"In the end," says coach Rick Carlisle, "our whole season rides on what happens in the playoffs, the challenge of advancing and winning a championship. Getting to the second round and going on from there.

"That's what our season is about," he said.

Is it presumptuous or even delusional for an Eastern Conference team to be thinking such grandiose thoughts? Yes and no. Unless the Board of Governors amends the rule, there still will be an Eastern Conference team in the NBA Finals in June. And, for the first time since 1997, an Eastern Conference team -- Indiana -- could have the home-court advantage in the series. (The Pacers play 10 of their final 16 at home while the Sacramento Kings play 10 of their final 16 away from Arco Arena.)

But there's no guarantee the Pacers will even get there, with the Nets starting to jell and the Pistons looking particularly menacing since the Boston-midwived deal for Rasheed Wallace. Neither New Jersey nor Detroit is going to catch the Pacers over the remaining three weeks, which means that the road to the NBA Finals in the East will go through Conseco Fieldhouse.

Last year, it looked to be going the same way until the Pacers collapsed in March and April. Then, in a regrettable, forgettable and embarrassing playoff performance, the third-seeded Pacers were ousted in the first round by a Celtics team which did little else but shoot 3s. (The Nets subsequently swept Boston in the next round.)

It was the third straight year that the Pacers had lost in the first round, although this was the first time they had been favored in a series. That ouster cost Isiah Thomas his job and new hoops honcho Larry Bird turned to his friend and former teammate, Carlisle, to shepherd things over 82 games and beyond.

So far, Carlisle has been terrific, although, for some strange reason, you don't hear his name mentioned for Coach of the Year. It should be. He's about to become only the fifth head coach in the last 37 years to win at least 50 games in his first three full seasons as a head coach and only the second (Pat Riley being the first) to win three straight division titles in his first three seasons.

But do the Pacers have what it takes to A) get through the East and B) win the NBA Finals over what could be a superior team from the West? They stand as good a chance as anyone to at least get to the Finals. And if they do, we could have our first really competitive, anything-goes NBA Finals in years -- unless the Lakers wake up in the last month. Then it won't matter who gets to the Finals from the East.

"Our team feels like it has something to prove," Carlisle said. "We have to do something in the playoffs."

Indiana has been a constant all season. The Pacers jumped out of the box by winning 14 of their first 16 games and haven't looked back. They've never lost more than two in a row and that has happened only twice this season -- once in January and once in December. They are coming off a 28-7 stretch which gave them their insurmountable lead in the division and conference.

They entered this week with an 18-6 record against Western Conference teams and split the season series with the Lakers. (Although they were crushed early on when L.A. had its stars in the lineup; Shaq only played 23 minutes in the 99-77 rout.) They have won eight of 13 road games against the West as well and, in fact, have been a terrific road team all season with a league-best 24-11 mark.

They've not been beset by all the personal/injury woes which surfaced at this time last year, be it a shooting in Jermaine O'Neal's family, Jamaal Tinsley's mother's illness or the uncontrolled wackiness of Ron Artest. O'Neal has missed only two games all season, although Carlisle says his big man has right-knee tendinitis and could use a break. Hey, now's the time, Rick.

Artest has been a veritable George Sanders, refraining from challenging officials and other coaches and concentrating instead on basketball. Last year, Artest missed a staggering 12 games due to NBA- or team-imposed suspensions, including three for posting up a television camera in Madison Square Garden and four for taunting Riley and then flipping the bird to the fans in Miami.

Carlisle and Bird, neither of whom was around last year, worked hard to repair and reform Artest and, to date, the dividends have shown. Artest earned his first trip to the All-Star Game and no one could dispute his was not a worthy or well-deserved selection. He earned it with his play and his demeanor. He even came back early from a thumb injury, surprising his coach and his teammates.

The Pacers might be the deepest team in the conference. Top to bottom, they've had oodles of potential talent the last few years, but couldn't do much with it once the real games began. This year, they're on a pace to win 60-plus games and O'Neal, who was extremely bitter over the Thomas firing last summer, is, inarguably, the MVP of the conference.

The point guard position, so precarious last year that Tim Hardaway was exhumed prior to the playoffs, is more settled this season. Tinsley has been a serviceable starter and Anthony Johnson and Kenny Anderson are experienced reserves. Scot Pollard hasn't done much since arriving in the Brad Miller transaction, but Jeff Foster and O'Neal seem to be a successful tandem. Al Harrington is again playing a big role off the bench.

And then there's the redoubtable Reggie Miller. He has appeared in more games with just one team than anyone in NBA history not named John Stockton. (Karl Malone played more games in Utah, but has since moved on.) He may not be the first or second option anymore, but his simple presence on the floor and his history of making big shots makes him a threat. He passed the baton to O'Neal a few years ago and has willingly lived the life of a contributor ever since.

Carlisle, in a response to a fan's posting on the Pacers' website, said Miller "is playing at a high level now. I believe that Reggie will continue to play as long as he can play at a high level. When he gets to the point where he doesn't feel like he can play at that level, that's probably when he'll decide to call it quits."

It's all running ever so smoothly now, but no one has to tell the Pacers that April is, indeed, the cruelest month. This year, they'd like to make it that way for someone else -- maybe more than one someone else -- and they have the ammunition and determination to get it done.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.