'I take a lot of blame for this game'
INDIANAPOLIS -- When he wasn't spotting Reggie Miller several lengths and sprinting to the rim from halfcourt and then potentially changing an entire series by spiking a breakaway layup just before it kissed glass, Tayshaun Prince could be seen Monday night doing other important stuff.
Contributing to the unraveling of Ron Artest, namely.
In a tedious defensive struggle made memorable (and watchable) only because of Rasheed Wallace's pregame guarantee and one bizarre development -- victorious Detroit had only 23 baskets but also a stunning 19 blocked shots -- perhaps the strangest aspect of the evening was how poorly the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year performed.
So poorly that Artest, after the main media horde cleared, waved one more reporter over to his locker stall to take a few more questions and take something else.
Responsibility for the Pacers' first home loss in 15 games, halting an unbeaten run at Conseco Fieldhouse that stretched for more than two months, all the way to a March 19 defeat to Sacramento.
"I take a lot of the blame for this game," Artest said, having followed his 6-for-23 shooting misery in Game 1 with a 5-for-21 showing in Game 2.
"I'm not playing like my normal self."
Artest insists that his surgically repaired right thumb is not the cause for his offensive struggles. Fact is, that thumb has nothing to do with decision-making that has been dreadful.
When pressed, Artest did acknowledge that a variety of factors have him "forcing things a little bit too much."
He didn't sit still long enough to run them down individually, so we'll take care of that. They are:
In this game, that was a decisive eruption.
O'Neal declined to criticize Artest's insistence on continuing to hoist after Artest started 1-for-8. "We win as a team and we lose as a team," O'Neal said sternly.
Yet you can be sure that Pacers coach Rick Carlisle will be addressing Artest's constant forcing and settling for jumpers as part of his plea to get the ball moving again. Indiana's previous two victories were ugly -- it shot less than 34 percent from the floor and topped out at 78 points in victories over Miami (Game 6 of the second round) and Detroit (Game 1 here) -- but this performance took the Pacers' recent stagnation issues to new levels of concern.
"We didn't pass the ball at all tonight," Miller said. After a scoreless second half of his own, on 0-for-8 shooting, O'Neal couldn't say much more than this: "See you guys in Detroit."
Jamaal Tinsley's unexpected foul trouble certainly played a role, but that's not a usable alibi when Ben Wallace sits all but five minutes of the first half with the same problem. And still Detroit wound up with 19 blocks, one shy of the playoff record, even with Ben out so long.
"It's hard," Carlisle said of creating openings against his old team. "It's hard to get good looks." Going up against Detroit's defense, Carlisle added, "really puts a premium on your execution of the simplest things."
Which exposes the Pacers' foremost weakness. Their lack of poise at point guard is the biggest void Indiana has besides its shortage of dependable size after O'Neal and fellow starter Jeff Foster. Carlisle alluded to it in a roundabout way in his postgame news conference, calling the Pacers "a team that has gotten by during the year" in spite of its shortcomings.
The Pacers actually got by quite nicely, winning 61 games to lead the league. It's way too early in this series for them to start fretting, especially when the Pistons' offense doesn't look much better. Detroit doesn't have a real playmaker, either, so who could be surprised if Indy wins one of these next two games on the road?
A big factor in Indiana winning 61 games despite the absence of a trusty floor leader is the player Artest became this season. An All-Star.
Given the defense Detroit is playing and how the Pistons' bench is dominating Indy's, the Pacers need to see that Artest immediately if they hope to regain the home-court advantage that was just pilfered by Prince.
"It's not their defense," Artest said. "It's just us."
We'll see Wednesday, after four baskets (in 19 attempts) and five blocks from a relieved 'Sheed were enough to shift the scrutiny onto the Pacers' most outrageous character.