Frankenstein lineup enough to beat Detroit

Steve Hammer

It's a shame that gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is no longer with us, for many reasons, but his loss was especially felt Saturday night, when the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons played an acid trip of a game at Conseco Fieldhouse.

It was psychedlic in a literal sense: McDonald's french fry boxes, with paper parachutes attached, came drifting from the rafters during a timeout as part of a promotional stunt. But it was trippy to be at the first meaningful home game of the post-Ron Artest era and to see the league's best team fall, hard, to the Pacers.

If the flying McDonald's boxes would have baffled Thompson, he would have found himself in a dazed state anyway by the team Indiana fielded. Here was a Detroit-Indiana game without Artest, without Reggie Miller and without Jermaine O'Neal.

Even the young woman who perches herself in the corner of Section 20 and dances wildly with pompoms all game, every game, was absent Saturday. It was as if lightning had struck and replaced the Pacers with a team of strangers, so unfamiliar was the atmosphere.

The Pistons were there, fully ready to continue their robot-like pace towards a 70 win season. Their lineup needs no introduction to hoops fans: Chauncey Billups, floor general; Richard Hamilton, sharpshooter; Tayshaun Prince, master sergeant; Rasheed Wallace, admiral of the low post; and Big Ben Wallace, Artest provocateur and king of the blocked shot.

The Pacers countered with a bizarro-world lineup that perfectly accentuated their recent woes. Full of castoffs and failed potential, the Pacers' starting five on Saturday was as anonymous as any in the team's 39-year history, starting with Anthony Johnson and Stephen Jackson, about whom "well-traveled" is as kind a description as can be hoped. Jeff Foster and Scot Pollard, whose lack of grace and finesse is matched only by their inability to hit shots, also started.

Only the newly arrived Peja Stojakovic could be said to be a legitimate starter on an NBA team hoping to take down the Pistons.

But, just as small miracles occur at the least expected time, the Pacers were able to take their Frankenstein lineup and not only compete against the Pistons, but actually beat them 83-75 before a stunned sellout crowd of 18,345.

It wasn't a pretty game, by any stretch of the imagination. At times, it looked like a cruel 10-year-old had seized control of the players in a lifesize rendition of the videogame NBA Live. Jackson was hoisting up shots at random, going 8 of 22 for the night. Stojakovic was 3-14, missing wildly. Johnson was 3 of 12. As a team, the Pacers shot 39 percent from the field, a percentage guaranSheed to lose against the Pistons.

But the same cruel 10-year-old also was controlling the Pistons, as their high-powered offense fell apart. Billups was 2 for 8 and Rasheed Wallace 5 of 15 from the field, with only Richard Hamilton's game-high 31 points looking like a Pistons stat.

When it was over, the Pacers seemed as surprised as anyone, except perhaps the Pistons.

"This was the biggest win of the season, no doubt about it," said Danny Granger, whose 11 points off the bench helped key the Pacers win. "Detroit has been just running through everybody. With this win, this team now has the confidence to know that we can take on anybody in the league."

Staring at the stat sheet in the media interview room, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle seemed stunned too. "I can't remember the last time we had 25 assists," he said. Praising Granger and Harrison, who combined for 26 points, he said, "We've got a lot of confidence in those two guys. Danny has been a guy who has given us a lift off the bench and as a starter. He's developed a mid range jumper and has hit some big shots for us."

He noted, "Since the game in Cleveland, our guys have fought back and showed we have some real pride."

That Jan. 24 game in Cleveland, where the Pacers were blown out by 30 points, was perhaps the most embarrassing loss in franchise history. The Paers seemed helpless and lost, barely able to keep the deficit below 50.

But then key wins last week against the Lakers and Pistons have kept the team at a .500 clip, even without their best players. The team faces Portland and Golden State, respectively, on Wednesday and Friday, another two potential wins.

If the Pacers' season can be described as one long existential crisis, some small redemption was felt by beating the much-despised Pistons.

It may well be the only time this season the team will experience such a victory. Let them enjoy it for now. Reality, in the form of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, comes to town on Sunday.

The victory celebration can last until then.


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