Still doubting Thomas' Pacers
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

With the Indiana Pacers sitting atop the Central Division, I figured it was time to get the straight scoop on Isiah Thomas' young but talented club.

Are they as good as their record indicates, or will their inexperience catch up with them in the season's second half?

Prior to the Pacers' initial visit to New York on Jan. 3, I was wary of contacting Thomas -- a guy whose sweet choirboy smile has never matched his nasty on-court personna from the Pistons' Bad Boys era -- to find out what was truly what with his club. My hesitancy was confirmed by the familiar load of malarkey that Thomas had already dispensed to the New York media: The Pacers were such good guys to work with. They were totally focused on a common goal. Blah, blah and blah.

Jermaine O'Neal
Jermaine O'Neal is averaging 20+ points, but his maturity could be an issue for the Pacers.
So, I thought my quest for the real deal would be better served by hooking up with Indiana assistant coach Brendan Malone.

This is a guy who has been in the NBA for 16 seasons as assistant coach (Knicks, 1986-88; Detroit, 1988-95; Indiana, 2000-present), head coach (Toronto, 1995-96), and consultant (Seattle, 1996). He is celebrated for his wisdom, his maturity and his honesty. And Malone's assessment of his team turned out to be a remarkably accurate blueprint of its upcoming game against New York.

Q: How good is your team?

A: "I really don't know yet. We're certainly deep and very talented, but we're also very young -- the fifth-youngest team in the league. Right now the youngsters are playing well, especially on the road, but the season's still relatively fresh. For the first 40 games everybody's all adrenalized, and for the last 20 games everybody's juiced, because they can see light at the end of the tunnel. It'll be games 40-60 that will prove what kind of team we are."

Game No. 32 begins with Ron Artest (who describes the way he plays as "football-basketball") matched against Allan Houston. The Pacers' first play is an iso for Artest, who beats Houston and bulls his way into the middle, then reacts to the Knicks' help by delivering a nifty pass to Brad Miller for an easy layup. At the uphill end of the court, Artest goes under a weakside double-screen to rendezvous with Houston on the top-side and, with his arms stretched out sideways, chests Houston to a halt. Guarding Latrell Sprewell on a switch, Artest pushes his man baseline to a "help spot," where Jermaine O'Neal shows up on time to force Sprewell to miss a short jumper. Artest hits a 3-ball, and the Pacers jump to an early lead. Artest won't be faked off his feet, and he quite properly attacks a right-handed shooter's shot with his left hand (thusly keeping a hand, and arm, directly in the shooter's line of vision, as opposed to crossing his right hand across his and the shooter's body).

Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller is scoring 13 points per game, his lowest total since his rookie year in 1988.

"We do play a physical style of ball," Malone says, "but not even close to the way Detroit plays. And it's Artest's physical defense that makes up for everybody else. For a third-year player, Artest really knows how to play the pro game. He's working hard to improve his shooting. He makes the pass that leads to the assist pass. He's a three- or four-space rebounder. And he's learned how to show the refs his hands and play defense with just his feet and his body. More than anybody, Artest reminds me of Dennis Rodman."

At age 37 and in his 16th NBA season, Reggie Miller is the Pacers' senior citizen. Whereas in the past Miller was the focus of Indiana's offense, these days he has become an afterthought. If he's nearly invisible on offense, the Knicks also attack Reggie on the defensive end. Post-ups and isos for Sprewell produce layups and free throws, prompting Thomas to replace Reggie with Al Harrington (with Artest moving from a 3 to a 2) midway through the first quarter.

"Reggie hasn't fully recovered from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the world tournament," Malone says, "but he's definitely the leader of the team. He understands that being a leader won't win him any popularity contests, and Reggie's never afraid to get the guys ticked off at him. Besides that, Reggie's always studying game tapes, he works hard in practice, and his game-day routine is impeccable. The most important thing that Reggie is doing is teaching the young guys how to be pros."

You wouldn't guess it by looking at him, but the 7-foot, 260-pound Miller is a natural power forward who's only playing center so that O'Neal won't take a beating. There's Miller posting up Kurt Thomas on the left box, dribbling in place, trying to trick and/or nudge Thomas off balance. But though Miller is as strong as a brick outhouse, his moves are clunky, so he winds up passing the ball out to a guard. But Miller hits a medium-range jumper. Then another. When he's on the right box, he pivots and hits a turnaround jumper. Now he clears a space during a rebound scrum and puts back a missed shot. Watch him dive to the floor trying to rescue a loose ball.

"Back in 1998," Malone recalls, "Brad was by far the worst player in the Chicago pre-draft game. Give him credit for working his tail off and turning himself into a respectable NBA player. He can pass, rebound in a crowd, run the court, and knock down the 17-, 18-foot shot. His lateral movement isn't as bad as his thick body might suggest and his low-post game is getting better every year. Playing center in this league is no picnic and back-to-back games tire him out, but, especially with Jermaine in the pivot, Brad gives us a high-low look. He's big enough to make the entry pass, and he's a good enough shooter to keep his man from sinking inside."

After languishing on Portland's bench for four years, the 6-11, 240-pound O'Neal has become the Pacers' go-to guy. Running the floor like a guard, O'Neal clutches a pass from Jamaal Tinsley and executes a mighty dunk. Although there are no defenders lingering under the basket, O'Neal swings on the rim like a gymnast doing a trick on the rings. When he finally lands, he opens his yap and starts howling in self-celebration. On the left box, O'Neal overpowers Thomas and scores an easy layup. Since Isiah loves to repeat successful plays, the very next sequence finds O'Neal with the ball on the same spot. This time, he stymies a double-team by passing to a back-cutting Artest for a dunk.

Ron Artest
Ron Artest can score and also provides the Pacers a tenacious defensive presence.

Malone characterizes the 24-year-old O'Neal as "young, quick, talented and young."

Young, indeed. Yes, this is the same lamebrain who deliberately stepped on the chest of a fallen Spanish player even as the USA team was being thumped in the world championships. Yes, he's one more narcissistic NBA no-star. Bet your boots that O'Neal's immaturity will become more and more of a problem as the Pacers advance deeper into the playoffs.

But the Pacers' most significant problem is Tinsley, their point guard. With his team stretching its lead, Tinsley takes and misses a quick shot. Here he is finding his way to the basket for a pair of nifty layups. Next comes a three-on-two fast break that Tinsley ruins with a cutesy behind-the-back pass and a charging foul. In quick succession, Tinsley keeps his hands in his pocket while his opposite number, Howard Eisley, bags a jumper; loses the ball when he foolishly dribbles into a crowd; and commits another turnover with a sloppy pass into O'Neal (who, for his part, doesn't meet the ball).

"Point guard is the most difficult position," notes Malone, "and last season, when Jamaal was a rookie, he was our starter there. It's a tough situation for the young man, and he's making great strides, but he's still trying to find out exactly who he is. Sometimes he shoots too early in our offensive set. And his overall judgment with the ball remains questionable. The only solution is experience."

Early in the second quarter, Thomas makes a radical move. Usually, coaches will only send a pair of fresh players into a game at the same time, knowing that it takes a few trips up and down the court to get loose. But Thomas substitutes four players at once.

And Indiana's second unit is among the most potent in the league:

Ron Mercer, 6-7, 210 pounds: A proven scorer (rather than a shooter). Plays some point guard. Adequate defender. Can create his own scoring opportunities. Shoots first and never asks questions.

Austin Croshere, 6-9, 242: A hard-nosed baseline player who lost his jumper two years ago.

Jeff Foster, 6-11, 240: An underrated defender and exceptional rebounder. The perfect backup center.

Al Harrington
Al Harrington continues to show that he may need more playing time after scoring 61 points the last two games.

Erick Strickland, 6-3, 210: Defensively-oriented and a dangerous 3-point shooter.

Al Harrington, 6-9, 250: Can play small or power forward. Tallied 40 in late December against Atlanta and has developed into an explosive scorer. Is desperate for more playing time, but keeps a lid on as long as the Pacers keep winning. Posts up five times at the tail end of the half.

The intermission arrives with the Pacers in total control of the game and leading 58-41.

"Consistency is a major concern," Malone says. "Whenever we jump out to a big lead, our tendency is to relax our defense. At the same time, we tend to lose our patience on offense and shoot too quickly."

Sure enough, on both ends of the court the Pacers barely show a pulse as the second half is under way. Another turnover by Tinsley. Some sloppy passing. Quick shots that misfire. Suddenly the Knicks cut the margin to 61-55. Then Reggie Miller hits a 3. And Tinsley, who's currently suffering a 1-for-28 drought from beyond the line, nevertheless converts a pair of 3s and the Pacers extend to 77-60. Looks like they've won the same game twice.

But ... Esiley can't miss, shooting 3-for-3 from the outskirts. Mercer misses two free throws. With the game up for grabs, Artest shoots 3-for-6 from the line. (He also winds up 2-for-11 from the field.) And the Pacers fall apart.

Trying to turn the simplest plays into highlights, Tinsley forces several passes and repeatedly dribbles into the teeth of the defense. Artest begins to gamble while defending Sprewell and gets burned several times.

"Another red flag," Malone says, "is our transition from offense to defense. Not that it's atrocious. More like it's unsatisfactory and something that we always have to emphasize."

With the game winding down, Tinsley makes another foolish pass (his seventh turnover!) and the Knicks are on the long end of a 3-1 fast break. Sprewell misses the shot, but none of the other Pacers have hustled downcourt so Charlie Ward has an easy putback that moves the home team into the lead.

A last-ditch shot by Reggie barely grazes the rim. The Pacers successfully attack the glass, but neither Artest nor O'Neal realize that more than five seconds remain and their hurried put-backs go astray.

The Knicks win, 98-96.

As the Pacers make their way back to their locker room, Artest vents his frustration by grabbing a $100,000 television camera and smashing it to smithereens. (His tantrum will cost him a three-game suspension plus a 35K fine.)

By all reports, none of the Pacers are fooled by the mild-mannered face that Isiah Thomas presents to the public. They know firsthand how tough and how confrontative the former Bad Boy can be. Because his players are familiar with and have so much admiration for Thomas' Hall-of-Fame playing career, they rarely balk whenever he unloads on them (mostly for unacceptable defense). They also dig the way he delegates authority to his assistants, and have great respect for his command of X's and O's. Thomas is who most of the Pacers want to be when they grow up.

Little do they know.

So, how good are the Pacers? "We can play with anybody," Malone says. "We can beat really good teams and lose to really bad ones. Consistency. Maturity. These things don't happen overnight."

In other words, not good enough.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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