Artest Out Indefinitely After Thumb Surgery

by Jeff Tzucker
by Conrad Brunner

February 20, 2004

Indianapolis, Updated February 20, 2004

Though the Pacers made no external moves before the NBA’s Trade Deadline passed Thursday afternoon, internal shuffling was required when it was learned Ron Artest would be out indefinitely due to surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

The operation took place in New York on Thursday and was performed by Dr. Michelle Carlson. The team has placed no timetable on Artest’s return. He was placed on the injured list Friday afternoon and will miss at least the next five games. Rookie forward James Jones as activated to take his place on the roster.

Coach Rick Carlisle said Sixth Man Al Harrington would move into the starting lineup at small forward, with Austin Croshere and Jonathan Bender moving into bigger roles with the second unit.

"The good news is it’s not his shooting hand. The bad news is it’s a surgery,” Carlisle said. “Surgeries take a while to recover from. We may know more after the procedure. We're hopeful that he can come back quickly, but we don't want to speculate. I'm not a medical guy and sometimes you don't know until they get in there and take a look at it and make the repair. . . . We may have a better idea of a timetable in a day or two."

The thumb has bothered Artest since he got it tangled in Richard Jefferson’s jersey late in the first half of a Jan. 17 game in New Jersey. Originally diagnosed as a sprain, Artest played with his left hand in various forms of taped support. He aggravated the injury against New Orleans on Tuesday night when he collided with Jamal Mashburn, then fell to the floor.

“We knew he was talking about it for a while, so it wasn’t a real surprise,” said Jermaine O’Neal. “We’re fortunate to have a team like we have, with a guy like Al Harrington that can fill it up in a big way. He pretty much does what Ron does, and he gets a great opportunity now. And Jonathan Bender and Austin Croshere get opportunities to play. But we feel like we can win. The team feels like they can win without me, without Ron, without Al, without Reggie. We’ve got guys that can step in and fill it up.

“We’re still planning on keeping things together. Sometimes teams play better when they get their backs against the wall. We’ve responded when Ron or Al hasn’t played, so we know what we have to do collectively and individually – step it up. I think everybody knows we’re going to have to step it up, but we’re not worried. That’s the key message we’ve got to send to our fans, that we’re not worried. We still feel like we can accomplish our goals. We’ve got to just hold the fort till he’s able to get back.”

The Pacers are 3-0 without Artest this season, and 5-1 with Harrington in the starting lineup. Harrington, who has averaged 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 37.0 minutes in six starts, has been playing at less than 100 percent with lingering pain from a bone bruise in his knee. But he said it wouldn’t hold him back.

“My knee’s bothering me, but I’m just going to play through it,” he said. “As long as I can walk, I can play. I know there’s going to be some nights when I’m going to be down but I’m going to have to find it within myself to push it.”

While the starting lineup won’t lack for offensive punch with Harrington, Artest’s absence will be felt the greatest on defense. The second unit, meanwhile, faces the challenge of replacing Harrington’s consistent scoring – he’s third on the team at 13.4 points per game.

"We'll play a slightly different game with Al out there as opposed to Ron,” said Carlisle. “But we're not going to re-invent our team 54 games into the season. That's a reality that we're all aware of. We'll try to go to Al in the post as often as we can. He's proven he can step back and hit the mid-range jump shot. There are a lot of things we can still do even though we don't have Ron out there.

"It'll change our complexion defensively, not having a guy like Ron, who is a first-team All-Defensive player and maybe a Defensive Player of the Year guy. But we have a system for playing team defense and it's not ever one man's responsibility to stop one guy. Our system is based upon help, whether it's Al or whether it's Bender or it's a guy like Freddie Jones playing the three-spot, they're going to have a tough job guarding people, but we're going to have help for them if we need it."

Though the length of Artest’s absence is uncertain, it is assumed he’ll be placed on the injured list prior to Friday night’s game in Washington. That would mean a minimum absence of five games, likely more. For the interim, the Pacers will get a chance to draw from what they believe is one of the deepest talent pools in the league.

“While Ron is a great asset to our team, I don’t think it’s going to hurt us as much as it would hurt other teams that don’t have the same depth,” said Croshere. “It’s up to a number of guys to step up. It’s a letdown but you look at it as a challenge. For someone like myself, or Jonathan, or Al, it’s an opportunity to prove this team won’t skip a beat. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the goal.”

President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird said Artest’s absence did not alter the franchise’s conservative approach toward the trade deadline. He said he’d prefer to withhold final judgment on the roster until he can evaluate the players during the postseason.

“Me and Donnie (Walsh) talked about it when I first came in: I’d like to watch it for a year, then go from there,” Bird said. “I like our team. Even though we’re losing Ronnie for a while, I still like our team. I know we’ve got a lot of talent here. Somebody’s just got to step up.”