Two punchdrunk teams try to find their footing
There are, Shaquille O'Neal says, two kinds of people in the world, and they will have their own basketball choices on Christmas Day.
"There's people who want to see two ex-partners going at it in a good solid game," he said, referring to his matchup against his former team and Kobe Bryant.
"And there are the UFC, 'I Want To See Another Fight,' crowd," he said, referring to the Detroit-Indiana game which precedes the Miami-Los Angeles matchup.
(For those not in the know, and that included me, UFC stands for Ultimate Fighting Championships.)
Ever since Nov. 19, a night that the NBA is still painfully reliving, the rematch between the Pistons and Pacers has been added to the 'must-watch' list of pro hoop fans. Who knows, it might even be a good basketball game, but that's not the reason that people will tune in. Shaq is right; the UFC crowd will be watching with the same mindset as those who watch NASCAR hoping for a 15-car pileup.
You can be certain that Conseco Fieldhouse will be in lockdown mentality, probably a lot more than needed. (The Pacers would not divulge if they have extra security on hand for the game.) For starters, it's against Indiana state law to sell alcohol on Christmas, so the beer won't be flowing from the concession stand taps. (That won't stop the fans from indulging at home before the game, however.) The Pistons, meanwhile, are bringing down added security a good idea, given the hit Indiana took with the three fight-related suspensions of starters and the NBA also is bringing along extra security.
The Pacers are not planning to make any pre-game announcements to the crowd and probably don't need to. After all, we're reminded that it's just some game with a ball in 49 states and that it's basketball in the state of Indiana. There should be a Jermaine O'Neal sighting; his 25-game suspension was reduced to 15 games on Wednesday by an arbitrator, and on Thursday a federal court denied the NBA's appeal of the arbitrator's ruling. Thus, O'Neal is eligible at least in the legal system's eyes to play. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, the other two banished Pacers, will not be in the house.
All the attendant buzz that surrounds this game, however, is not due to the fact that we have the two Eastern Conference finalists from last year. Neither team is playing particularly well. The Pacers have a legitimate excuse because David Stern filleted their roster. The Pistons appear to be suffering from Post Championship Stress Disorder. Both teams have worse records than Washington, Cleveland and Orlando, none of whom made the playoffs last year.
"That night," recalled Indiana president Donnie Walsh, referring to Nov. 19, "we were really kicking their (rear ends.) I thought we had as good a chance as anyone to win it all this year."
The Pacers' record after their 97-82 victory over the Pistons that fateful night stood at 7-2. Artest had a team-high 24 points. Jermaine O'Neal had 20 points and a team-high 13 rebounds. Walsh saw correctly. His guys were good. They even gathered themselves to win three of the next four games after Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Jackson were suspended, all three of the victories coming before appreciative Conseco crowds. Then, reality hit.
The Pacers lost eight of their next 10, including a seven-game skid which coincided with a West Coast trip. Coach Rick Carlisle occasionally had only six available bodies as injuries and suspensions hit hard. In a loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, you'd have sworn that LA was playing the Fayetteville Patriots or the Roanoke Dazzle of the NBDL. Here are players who did not play in that game: Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Jackson, Reggie Miller, Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere, Jamaal Tinsley, Jonathan Bender, Scot Pollard and Anthony Johnson.
In other words, basically the entire Indiana team.
As Carlisle put it, "I call it a fluctuating roster situation." Two of the new Pacers in that game were cuts from the New Orleans Hornets, for goodness sakes. A third flew in the night before.
The team had hoped that things would get better when Miller and Foster returned and the other, non-suspended Pacers got healthy. Hasn't happened. Injuries still are killing the team. Carlisle has had to use 14 different starting lineups because of all the injuries and newcomers. Only once in the first 23 games has he had 12 basketball-able bodies on his bench.
"These situations are atypical," Carlisle said. "But when they come up, you end up flying by the seat of your pants."
O'Neal and Jackson will be back next month for sure. (It remains to be seen if O'Neal will be back sooner rather than later.) Artest appears to be a goner when a traditionally player-friendly arbitrator upholds his rest-of-season suspension. And it's hard to see Indiana fulfilling Walsh's wish from that November night without Artest. He's that important.
The Pistons have been curiously inconsistent, although this team has undergone more than a few changes since it finished off the Lakers last June. Three reserves that had semi-significant roles last season Mike James, Mehmet Okur and Corliss Williamson are gone. Larry Brown is back, but he missed time in November for a hip operation. His coaching staff is new.
Detroit was 4-4 after the Nov. 19 loss and, soon thereafter, lost Ben Wallace for six games for his role as over-the-top instigator of the evening. But he was the only casualty for Detroit among the Pistons' players. There were a couple of one-game suspensions for leaving the bench, but that was it. In fact, in the Pistons' media notes, the Nov. 19 incident is called "an altercation."
The biggest difference this year with the Pistons, aside from a possible championship hangover, is their defense. Last year, it was suffocating, stifling and an opponent could merely hope to score 80. Detroit did not allow an opponent to score 100 points in the last 30 games and ended up No. 1 in the league in points allowed (along with the Spurs) as well as third in field-goal defense and first in 3-point defense.
This year, it's a different story. The Pistons haven't suddenly gone Loyola Marymount on us, but the stats point to a defense that isn't as strong as last year. The Pistons do rank third in points allowed, but they're allowing more than 4 points a game more this season. And given their offense (26th in scoring) that's a significant increase.
Additionally, the Pistons are sixth in defensive field goal percentage opponents are shooting 43 percent compared to 41.3 percent from last year and 21st in defending the three-pointer.
Brown missed six games while having a hip replacement, five of them coming prior to the Nov. 19 "altercation." The Pistons were 2-4 in those games.
That's sort of been their story all season. They were at .500 after the Nov. 19 loss to Indiana and they've basically been at .500 since then. They looked like they might be turning things around with a three-game winning streak earlier this month. They then lost at home to Atlanta, of all teams. In fact, in their first four home games of the month, they were 2-2, with losses to the Hawks and Trail Blazers. One of the victories required overtime (against the toothless Raptors.)
The Pistons were a strange team last year as well. They were 16-12 at Christmas. They had a 13-game winning streak in late December and January. They had a six-game losing streak in February. They then acquired Rasheed Wallace and closed by winning 20 their last 24 games.
Still, Detroit faced two elimination games against New Jersey in the conference semifinals. The Pistons needed a spectacular block by Tayshaun Prince in Game 2 of the conference finals to avoid going down 0-2 to the Pacers. (That play is the 2004 basketball equivalent of Dave Roberts' stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.) But once they got to the Finals, the Pistons simply steamrolled the Lakers.
A lot of preseason predictions had them repeating this year, a task made demonstrably easier by the suspensions in the wake of the Nov. 19 fight. The Pacers (and possibly Miami) loomed as the only serious obstacles to the Finals. The Indy-Detroit rematch on Christmas probably will showcase everyone on their best behavior, although you can be sure we'll see plenty of videotape from the "altercation." The UFC crowd might well switch channels.
Basically, it's two currently mediocre teams still trying to their rhythm and their way, neither of which was made any easier by the events of one month ago.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.