"New-look team looking good so far

Looking very much like a science fair project, or a new creation from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the new-school Indiana Pacers made their regular-season debut last week. The surprise is that, despite the team’s hurriedly-assembled feel, and their unfamiliarity to fans, the team has actually played pretty well in its first three games and predictions of a catastrophic season may actually be wrong.

It was only two years ago, you’ll recall, that the Pacers were considered contenders to unseat the Detroit Pistons as league champions. The players promised Reggie Miller an NBA title for his final season. The squad was rested and ready.

Then a cup of beer tossed onto Ron Artest’s chest ended those dreams. The Pacers were beaten by the Pistons in the playoffs.

The year 2005 was another disastrous one for the team. Beset by internal dissension, reported disaffection with Rick Carlisle and injuries, the Pacers struggled to a .500 record.

The off-season saw veterans Austin Croshere, Peja Stojakovic and Anthony Johnson depart and former Pacer Al Harrington return. Three players were involved in a bizarre shooting incident outside a strip club. In all, there are eight new players on the Pacers this year.

It’s an attempt to instantly rebuild the team more or less from scratch, using speed and strength instead of ball control and finesse.

And while the long-term success of the effort is still in question, the Pacers still managed to win two of their first three games, albeit against some of the worst teams in the league.

They did it by distributing the ball, by taking advantage of defensive mismatches, by pushing the ball upcourt instead of leisurely walking it up into a set play. In short, they’re playing like a team again, for the first time in several years.

“Everything’s different,” Jermaine O’Neal told Pacers.com. “Everybody’s happy all the time. You feel good about coming to the gym. You feel good about just being around a group of guys that generally care for each other. We didn’t feel that way the last two years. If you don’t like each other, it’s a problem.”

And, unlike any Pacers team in recent memory, the frontcourt is small but speedy. O’Neal, Harrington and Danny Granger may lack the size of other teams’ big men, but they’re all offensive playmakers and are capable of playing solid D.

In their opening game at Charlotte, the Pacers played consistent basketball. And although they faltered Friday in the home opener against a talented New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets team, they rebounded with a win against the Knicks on Saturday.

When they’re playing well, it’s because of the teamwork concept that favors no individual player’s stat sheet but rather winning or losing. This may be bad news for fantasy-league owners but good news for the Pacers, who’ve struggled with ego issues for years.

This new style of play will allow the talented but under-utilized Sarunas Jasikevicius to see more playing minutes. On Saturday, he responded with several key buckets in the fourth quarter. Granger, who is an aggressive player in the style of Scottie Pippen, will finally get his chance to shine.

With the team starting the season playing most of its games on the road, it’ll quickly be sink-or-swim time for the Indiana Pacers. Whether they respond positively or not is up to them, but one thing is clear: The team has the potential to win. And that’s more credit than many would have given them just a few weeks ago.




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