INDIANAPOLIS -- Jermaine O'Neal has watched, read and listened to what he calls the "so-called experts and analysts" all season. And he's fed up. His Pacers aren't getting enough love or respect. Hardly anyone is picking the team with the NBA's best record to win the title -- and some aren't even picking them to even win their own conference.
It's understandable that O'Neal, the Pacers' best player, might take offense to the chirpings of others. But when you diss the Pacers by putting them on NBA TV, that's going a bit too far.
Such was the case Tuesday night for Indiana and Boston in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference playoff series. If you didn't have access to the local feeds, then NBA TV, available in about 20 houses, was the only television option to see the game.
"We had the best record and we can't get on national TV," O'Neal said with equal parts disbelief and scorn. "We're the first team in the playoffs to be on NBA TV. We want to be on the national scene. Don't put us on NBA TV. It's kind of disrespectful, but, at the same time, we can only control what we can control. But it definitely fires me up."
Pacer Putdown is a subconscious but unavoidable theme running through the Boston series -- and, quite possibly, through a couple more as well. And O'Neal does have a point.
Look at the collection of "so-called experts and analysts" at ESPN.com and you'll see what he means. Of the 14 individuals who made selections, 11 of them, ranging from Hall of Famers like Jack Ramsay to know-nothings like Yours Truly, had the Pistons making the NBA Finals. The other three had the Pacers advancing. None of the three had the Pacers winning the championship while two of the 11 have the Pistons winning it all. Hey, at least all 14 of us had Indiana advancing out of the first round and to the conference finals.
But it is true that Indiana has played below the radar for much of the season, as everyone's attention was focused on the West, where the Spurs were defending, the Lakers were fussin' and fumin', the Kings were disassembling down the stretch and the Timberwolves were quietly putting together the best record in the toughest conference. This is a Pacers team that won 61 games, went 20-8 against the West (although 3-5 against the top four out West), have a top-three MVP candidate in O'Neal, a top-three Coach of the Year candidate in Rick Carlisle and the Defensive Player of the Year in Ron Artest.
This is also a team that never had more than a two-game losing streak all season -- and had only three of those. Of course, it didn't help their cause when they scored 61 points and got smoked by the Pistons on April 4. But, by then, the Pacers pretty much had clinched everything they needed to clinch.
Part of the anti-Indy bias is the cast-in-concrete bias against the East, due mainly to the rather painfully obvious fact that no Eastern team has put up much of a fight in the NBA Finals since the Bulls' diaspora. And until an Eastern team wins it again, that bias will remain intact.
The other reason is that everyone saw the Pacers storm out of the blocks last season -- Isiah Thomas was the All-Star coach for the East -- and then come a' cropper after the All-Star Game, climaxing with their pathetic performance against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, where they lost in six. So there was an obvious and understandable wait-and-see approach. Well, sort of.
Pacers president Donnie Walsh understands, to a point, why no one is taking his team seriously and agrees with O'Neal. But, he added, isn't it time to start re-thinking?
"During the season, I took it like people were waiting to see what happens," Walsh said. "We did the same thing last year and fell apart. When it became apparent that we weren't going to fall apart this year, that's when I would have expected people to say, 'Hey, these guys are for real.' And you really didn't see that. It was like, 'Hey guys, you can look east of the Mississippi.' "
All it took lately was for the NBA to suspend Artest for Game 2 for leaving the bench during a dust-up involving O'Neal to get the Pacers' franchise forward going again. Before the suspension was announced, O'Neal said any such form of discipline would be "ridiculous" and then added, "If the league does something, obviously they're trying to put us in a tough position once again."
"It's the NBA at its best," he said. "We've been put in tough situations all year. I don't know what people think about us, what they want from us, or what they don't want us to do."
Huh? Does this conspiracy go to the highest levels of the NBA? Apparently it does when the Pacers are relegated to NBA TV and disrespected by everyone else who follows the game.
"It comes from writers, from so-called experts and analysts," O'Neal said. "They try to do whatever they can to discredit our wins, 61 wins. I don't care if you play in the European League. If you win 61 games out of 82, that's a hell of a season. We're not only beating the East. But the West, too. And we're the only team that has lost two straight (three times.) That's a hell of an accomplishment. But for some reason, everybody wants to say (it doesn't matter) because we play in the JV league."
And, O'Neal said, he's also convinced that the disrespect extends to his own game, despite the fact that he A) will quite likely be among the top-three vote getters for MVP (although he won't win) and B) will quite likely be a second-team, All-NBA selection (and would be first team were it not for two guys named Garnett and Duncan who happen to play the same position.)
What about it, Jermaine?
"It's starting to irritate me a little bit," he confessed. "For me, personally, they discredit what I do. Like, 'He's having a good year, but he plays in the East.' I just got the numbers against the West and I average more against the West than I do against the East. But the East is more of a slow-paced, zone-it-up, sit two or three guys in your lap and try to defend you. The West is no-defense, up-and-down type of game, and I guess that's what people want to see. They don't want to see the physical part of it. But it doesn't matter. Not a whole of people are expecting us to do anything. I don't know if there's a whole lot of people who want us to do anything."
Well, everyone expects the Pacers to beat the Celtics. And everyone expects them to beat Miami or New Orleans. After that, it's a toss-up.
But there's one way to shut everyone up and get that last laugh -- go out and win the NBA title and bag the Finals MVP trophy along the way. Around about that time, all of us "so-called experts and analysts" will be explaining that our original prediction, the one that got lost in cyberspace, had the Pacers going all the way.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.