Pacers-Pistons in first round? Stay tuned

Updated: March 26, 2005, 2:37 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Jermaine O'Neal tossed the theory out there Friday night, and quickly had us convinced.

With or without a bomb-scare hoax.

O'Neal sat down for a courtside chat, looked his questioner in the eye as he always does and duly scoffed at the idea that a first-round series matching his Indiana Pacers against the Detroit Pistons would be the last first-round series either team wants.

"I would love to play them in the first round," O'Neal said. "And I think it would be good for the NBA for us to play a whole series."

Pistons vs. Pacers next month, in O'Neal's view, would eventually and finally shift the focus between the East's most bitter rivals back to basketball.

Instead of the unsavory stuff that keeps intruding on Pacers vs. Pistons, especially when they're in Michigan.

The fear factor emanating from The Palace of Auburn Hills this time didn't approach the scary scenes everyone remembers from The Malice of Auburn Hills back in November, but the Pacers were sufficiently spooked when two -- yes, two, according to several Pacers -- bomb threats were called in for the rematch, both specifically targeting their locker room.

The nearly 90-minute delay that ensued seemed to sedate a sellout crowd ... and split Pacers players "down the middle," according to Reggie Miller, about whether or not they should even play ... and unquestionably spoiled the genuine efforts of both teams to gain some distance from what is widely regarded as the ugliest brawl ever seen at a major American professional sporting event.

Believed to be among those Pacers on the team bus who would have preferred canceling the game -- even if it meant Indiana being tagged with a forfeit -- Miller lashed out at the league after Indiana steeled itself for a crucial 94-81 triumph that keeps alive the possibility of an Eastern Conference finals rematch in Round 1 this spring.

Referring to the season-long ban of Ron Artest and lengthy suspensions served by O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, and then blasting the Pistons for what he called "lax" security that continues to go unpunished, Miller said: "The league knows it and the league should be ashamed of it. ... David Stern needs to take a long look in the mirror and think about the way he penalized us and the way he penalized the Pistons."

Miller abruptly ended his soliloquy there, capping an evening that, for all the daunting buildup and dredged-up horror footage, had gotten off to such a serene, upbeat start.

Some two hours before tipoff, Indiana's Anthony Johnson approached Detroit's inimitable public-address announcer, John Mason, and complimented Mason on his signature "Dee-troit Bas-ket-Ball" call. During warm-ups, Pacers center David Harrison was shocked when fans close to the court asked him to sign brawl photos. And Jackson didn't receive an overtly hostile reception as he trotted out to get loose or even during the game. The boos aimed at Jackson whenever he touched the ball, seemingly out of obligation by Detroiters more than anything, offered yet another indication that the majority of Pistons fans want nothing to do with the nasty reputation they've gained because of the actions of a few on Nov. 19.

Of course, Pistons fans face that same dilemma now because of what happened on March 25.

"Every city has a handful of knuckleheads that try to spoil it for the rest of the fans," O'Neal said.

Said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle: "On Nov. 19, it was one guy who ruined it for everybody else. You can't put that on a city or [its] fans. Unfortunately, the game tonight had basically the same thing happen."

O'Neal, though, declined to back off his pregame proclamation. He remains convinced that an early playoff encounter between last spring's Eastern Conference finalists is precisely what all the parties need to keep moving away from the past.

He tested the theory himself by insisting on making this trip and sitting on the bench in spite of his shoulder trouble. O'Neal even ventured out Thursday night, forcing himself to mingle with the locals.

The result?

O'Neal was asked to sign autographs, shake hands and pose for pictures. Well-wishers told him they were hoping for a speedy recovery from his shoulder injury.

Rewinding through it all, O'Neal wore a contented look as he sat in a courtside seat about an hour before the scheduled start. First he revealed that there's a "pretty good chance" he'll be able to play in a few games before the playoffs begin, saying he hopes to be back at practice early next week. Then he insisted that the Pistons' fans he encountered out on the town want to move forward as much as the players from both teams.

"The one thing that has never changed between the Pacers and the Pistons is good basketball," O'Neal said. "We feel that at the end of day, all that side stuff is [eventually] just going to be side stuff."

Indy's foremost optimist, mind you, couldn't totally dismiss the gravity of the bomb scare.

"You're talking about a bomb threat," O'Neal said. "What did you think when you heard about it? It's something you can't take lightly. Especially when the person calls back and tells you, 'You missed it -- it's in the locker room.'"

The Pistons and Auburn Hills police officials never believed that because they had security stationed outside the visitors' locker room since 10 a.m. Friday. The fans, to their credit, likewise handled the delay calmly, watching Michigan State-Duke on the scoreboard overhead while the Pacers hashed out their play-or-leave plans on the bus.

Yet the Pistons know they'll be asked to prove themselves all over again the next time Indiana visits ... which could be as soon as April 23 if current playoff seedings hold.

Carlisle insisted that "this is full closure to me," in spite of the evening's chaos. Yet it'd be much easier for more folks to make that claim after a few incident-free playoff games here, as O'Neal theorizes.

"I just really want this stuff to be over," Jackson said. "But I know the rivalry [with Detroit] is going to be there as long as me and Ron and JO are here."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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