Pacers Must Rally - Again - in Artest's Absence

by Conrad Brunner

Jan. 29, 2003

Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, Jan. 29, 2003 - The Pacers do not lack for experience, when it comes to dealing with the absence of a key player. They must call upon it again now, with Ron Artest serving another suspension that will keep him out of the lineup until after the All-Star break.

They will do what they have done before. They will rally.

It's what they almost did Wednesday night, cutting a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to six in the final minutes before San Antonio's Stephen Jackson came up with a steal and dunk to seal a 106-97 victory that snapped the Pacers' 14-game winning streak at Conseco Fieldhouse.

It's what they'll have to do in their final three games before the break.

"It's obstacle after obstacle," said Jermaine O'Neal, who had a season-high 31 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. "We've just got to continue what we've been doing, just trying to get over them and make it happen."

Without Reggie Miller to start the season, the Pacers went 10-2. When O'Neal went down with a knee sprain, they went 3-1. During Artest's previous three-game suspension, they went 2-1.

So precedent suggests they have the ability to weather this latest storm.

"We've just got to fight through it," said Brad Miller. "People have got to step up and give a little bit extra. This is a tough part of the season, too, these last few games before the break. Everybody below us is trying to get a couple of games on us before the break and we just have to step up and try harder now.

"We've got a lot of players who can play. We talk about our depth; we're just going to have to use it in these next three games."

The timing is particularly gruesome, from a matchup standpoint. The next three opponents happen to be Toronto, Boston and the Lakers, which means Artest would've drawn the assignments against Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant.

What now?

Coach Isiah Thomas, left with precious little time to make adjustments in the Spurs gameplan because the NBA didn't announce Artest's suspension until just before 5 p.m., started Ron Mercer Wednesday night, but that isn't necessarily his final answer.

"I'll take some time tonight," Thomas said, "now that we do have some time, think about it and try to come up with the proper situation in terms of how to handle it."

The team's two leaders could scarcely mask their contempt for the league's decision.

"There's so much in this league they need to tighten up and they're worrying about our team," said Jermaine O'Neal. "We're winning ballgames. We've got the second-best record in the league. They should understand that and stop trying to make our games tougher for us. We're deep. Somebody's going to step up. We're just getting kind of tired of it, but we're going to bounce back."

"We're not going to use it as a crutch or an excuse," said Reggie Miller. "We've got other pieces to the puzzle that can fill in. It's tough because of the circumstances. We don't believe (Artest deserved) a four-game suspension. That's absolutely crazy. But other guys are going to have to step up into his place and produce."

Artest was suspended for a combination of actions in Miami on Monday night: getting into two verbal altercations with the Miami bench, one of which resulted in a technical foul; running Caron Butler off the court and into the front row of seats for a Flagrant Foul the league re-classified as a Type II infraction; and raising the middle fingers of both hands while running downcourt.

"Obviously, somebody doesn't want the Indiana Pacers to be on top of the Eastern Conference," O'Neal said. "We've been there pretty much all year and we're going to stay there. We're going to find a way to win games with guys or without guys. We're behind Ron 100 percent. We like his intensity. He didn't break a camera. He didn't throw a chair. He didn't do anything. He flexed his muscle and went over to the bench and said what he had to say. They didn't suspend Pat Riley. They didn't suspend the other coach (Miami assistant Keith Askins) for jumping up, dropping his pad and walking up on the player. Why isn't he suspended? Why is it all about the Pacers?"

Harrington likely will step into the most prominent role, as he did in each previous instance. He started at small forward while Miller was out, with Artest at shooting guard; he started at power forward when O'Neal was out; and he started at small forward when Artest was suspended for his destruction of television equipment after a loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.

"We've been here before," Harrington said. "We've played without guys all year. This is going to hurt us because we're not at full strength and we can't be the best team we can be but we know we can still win even though Ron's not here. We've got to put that behind us and go play basketball."