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Mysterious Pacers keep the competition guessing

4/19/2003 - Indiana Pacers

Of the NBA's Sweet 16, they are arguably the most mystifying team.

On paper, judging their wealth of talent one through 12 on the roster, the Indiana Pacers should be the most feared Eastern Conference squad in the playoffs. On the court, they are indeed a frightening sight, and it's not all because of the anxiety over what Ron Artest might do next.

Yet no one knows which Pacers team will be on the floor for each tipoff of their first-round series with Boston -- and any best-of-seven beyond that, for that matter. It could be the pre-All-Star-break Pacers with an East-best 34-15 record, or it could be the second-half-sliding Pacers wrought with personal tragedy, injuries, flagrant fouls and suspensions that stumbled at 14-19.

Not even Pacers coach Isiah Thomas knows. But the competition is well aware of what Team Question Mark is capable of.

"We've beaten every team in the East and we've proved that we can play with the big boys," All-Star center Brad Miller said. "It's just a matter of making sure that our heads are in the right place. We know what we've got to do. If we go out and execute, we can beat any team any given night."

"When we have confidence -- whether it's at Conseco Fieldhouse or on the road, no matter what teams do defensively or offensively and if we play the way we're capable of playing and play together for 48 minutes -- we win ball games," said Jermaine O'Neal, the Pacers' All-Star power forward and one of their few known quantities. "When we don't do that, then we struggle."

Getting back to that first-half form has been trying to say the least. And their losing-12-out-of-13 slide from mid-February to mid-March wasn't close to being the team's biggest loss; the mother of Jamaal Tinsley, Letris Smith, died of cancer on March 24. O'Neal's stepfather, Abraham Kennedy, remains hospitalized after suffering a self-inflicted gunshot on March 1.

Artest's intermittent suspensions from his league-leading nine flagrant-foul points compounded Indiana's problems.

"I think for any team to go through that adversity and still be in a homecourt advantage position is incredible about the mentality of this team," reserve point guard Erick Strickland said. "We've had five guys lose people close to them, and it's been tough.

"Hopefully, it wasn't bad enough to take the team's spirits away. Hopefully, the playoffs will rejuvenate the spirit of this team. Sometimes, all you need is a second wind, a little rejuvenation."

Thomas sees the scenery change of the postseason doing the Pacers some good. Reasons to be optimistic about his team's mental state emerged this past week when Indiana, needing victories to wrap up the East's No. 3 seed and homecourt advantage in the first round, finished strong with road wins at New York and New Jersey.

"We need to just be able to play the right way, play with the purity of unselfishness offensively and defensively," Thomas said. "What made us a beautiful team, or a really good team, is that we played the game the right way -- we shared the basketball, we set screens for each other, we moved (the ball). We didn't necessarily care who scored. We grabbed rebounds. It was team basketball in its purist form. I thought we did that for several months during the season. And the challenge for me, and for us, is to get back to that purity of play."

Who knows? Maybe they will.

Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.