Pacers Face 2 Games Without Suspended O'Neal

by Conrad Brunner

March 27, 2002

NEWS & NOTES
By Conrad Brunner


Even with the team's current slump, the Pacers are still in strong playoff position. The greater issue, however, has become what the state of the team will be once the postseason arrives.

The Pacers entered a gauntlet of seven consecutive games against Eastern Conference playoff contenders riding a four-game winning streak and confidence was high. They promptly lost three of the next four - the last two at home in ugly fashion - and now will play the next two without leading scorer and rebounder Jermaine O'Neal.

The Pacers' lone All-Star was suspended for two games and fined $10,000 by the NBA on Wednesday for committing a type-two flagrant foul against Detroit's Corliss Williamson as well as throwing punches at Pistons Ben Wallace and Michael Curry. In addition, Jonathan Bender, Primoz Brezec and Bruno Sundov were each suspended for one game and fined $5,000 for leaving the bench during the altercation, which came with 1:16 remaining in a 96-77 loss to the Pistons on Tuesday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.

Williamson was fined $5,000 for retaliating to O'Neal's flagrant foul by throwing the ball at him.

"This is terrible timing for this," said team president Donnie Walsh.

The Pacers face the Magic in Orlando on Friday night, then return home to face Miami on Sunday. They're 1-7 without O'Neal this season, the only victory coming against Chicago.

The odds are still very much with them in terms of making the playoffs. They hold a 2½-game lead over ninth-place Washington. Though the Wizards have welcomed back Michael Jordan, nine of their final 11 games are against teams with winning records. After emerging from the seven-game gauntlet against Boston on Tuesday night, the Pacers play just two winning teams in their final nine games.

The Pacers have become embroiled in disputes with officials throughout the season, but the intensity has picked up of late with 11 technical fouls - and O'Neal's ejection - in the last four games. Brad Miller, a relative veteran, has three of the technical fouls.

"Young team, young problems," Thomas said. "Those are issues that we talk about, we discuss, however until you get older in this league, you don't let the officials affect your game or take you out of your game."

O'Neal, who refused comment again Wednesday, has spoken out frequently about his perceived lack of respect from officials. Thomas has spoken out just as frequently about the young player's need to focus on things he can control and not allow officiating to become a distraction.

"We've talked about it enough," Thomas said. "Jermaine's a very bright young man and he understands how we feel about that aspect of the game. It's something he's got to do a better job of controlling. No matter how much you scream, how much you yell, it's not going to change the call the official has made. You've just got to put the ball in the basket, period."

O'Neal also has struggled with that of late, shooting .394 from the field in the last eight games.

"When you're not shooting the ball well and you're not putting it in the hole, no one can help you with that," Thomas said. "It's not the officials' fault."

PACERS LIKE INDIANA WEATHER: PRONE TO SUDDEN CHANGES

One day, the sun is out, the sky is blue and a warm breeze is blowing. The next, a gray shroud envelops everything, with storms blowing up seemingly out of nowhere. As it goes with Indiana weather, so it has gone for the Pacers.

Three times this season, they've had four-game win streaks. In all three cases, the team promptly fell into a mysterious slump, including the present three-loss, four-game slide.

Theories?

"I would just attribute it to youth," coach Thomas. "One of the problems with having a young team and being a young team is there's inconsistency with young players. We've been able to be much more consistent than some of the younger teams but it still effects us.

"I see why a lot of coaches in this league don't want to coach young guys and they just play their veteran guys. But we're the youngest team in the league, we're .500, got a good shot at making the playoffs with 12 to go and if we do, it'll be quite an accomplishment with this team. We've had two games where we've struggled badly, however we had games before that where we played really good. We've just got to get back to playing good basketball."

The previous two slumps have been traced back to defensive slippage. This time, offense has been the problem. In the last three losses, the Pacers have averaged 83.0 points on .382 shooting.

"We're not shooting the ball well," said Thomas. "Our rhythm is off, our timing is off. The last two games, we just haven't played well offensively. We went from clicking pretty smoothly to all of a sudden the wheels just fell off, and we've got to work to get it back."

Thomas said the focus must be on shot selection and turnovers.

"That's the two biggest areas with us and it's typical with a young team," he said. "When you have young guys in this league, the two things they suffer from is carelessness with the basketball and knowing the difference between a good shot and a better shot. ... Reggie's the oldest guy, the veteran on the team, and he's the guy that's doing all the passing. It's a matter of us growing up and learning from our mistakes and trying to cure those two things right now."

It's having the patience to endure the maturing process that Thomas sometimes finds to be a test.

"When they're 28 or 29, it'll go like clockwork. When they're 22 and 23, that's just the way it is. I've got gray hair and red eyes," he said. "For all the hair-pulling that they make me do and all the late nights that you stay up, then they'll hit a stretch where they're beautiful and you just say, 'That's what I want. That's what we're looking for.' And then they'll act 22 again. We just want to get them to 29 one day."

VETERANS WORRIED ABOUT TIMING OF SLUMP

This is supposed to be the time of year when teams peak for the playoffs. The Pacers did just that last season, going 14-5 down the stretch. That's why the timing of current malaise is troubling to two of the team's most experienced players, Reggie Miller and Ron Mercer.

"It's too late in the season to be having games like this and we've had them," Miller said. "You're not supposed to be having these games this late in the season because you're trying to get ready for the playoffs and each game is going to be challenging. Hopefully we can go uphill from here."

Mercer echoed those sentiments.

"It's a big concern but it's not too late," he said. "I think right now we just have to learn from it. If something like this is going to happen, we'd rather take care of it now instead of waiting until five games are left in the regular season. We have to jump on top of it right now, continue to play hard and learn from it."

THOMAS PLANS TO ENHANCE MERCER'S ROLE

Only Reggie Miller has a higher career scoring average among Pacers players than Mercer (17.1 entering this season). Though his role was something of a mystery immediately after the trade with Chicago because he was still nursing a sprained right knee, Mercer has come on strong of late, scoring 17 points in 19 minutes in Miami and 15 points 24 minutes against Detroit.

Thomas said he intends to find more ways to get Mercer involved.

"What I've decided to do with Mercer is just put him out on the floor," Thomas said. "He's too good of a basketball player to be sitting on the bench and taking DNPs. He's an extremely good basketball player and we've got to somehow keep finding ways to put him out on the floor regardless of the position he's playing. He's one of your top players."

Mercer, 6-5, has played primarily shooting guard in his NBA career, with some small forward mixed in. With the Pacers, he has been used recently at point guard as Thomas tries to find creative ways to work him into the crowded rotation.

"If that's what it takes for me to help this team, I'll do it," Mercer said. "If they put me at any other position, I'm willing to do it. I'm just ready to go out and play."