One step forward, two steps back

After a potentially season-changing win against the Detroit Pistons last Friday night, one in which the Indiana Pacers showed a determination and resolve not often seen in this season of rebuilding, coach Rick Carlisle was asked if his team had, indeed, turned the corner.

“It is only big if we sustain it,” the notoriously reticent coach proffered. “It is only big if we go home tomorrow night and get a win [against Charlotte]. This situation has been our nemesis for three years. It has been two steps forward and one step back for us, and if we are going to be a team that challenges any team in the East then we’ve got to perform with consistency, professionalism and we’ve got to win games at home that we are supposed to win. Tomorrow night will tell a lot.”

Anyone who has followed the Pacers with any degree of consistency over the past few years could have predicted the result. The Charlotte Bobcats, by no means a powerhouse squad, came into Conseco Fieldhouse and beat the Pacers, 113-102.

It was worse than the final score indicated. The Bobcats scored 34 points in the final quarter and thoroughly dominated the Pacers, who’d kept the score close to that point.

To anyone who’d wondered what the story arc of the Pacers would be this season, the answer is plain: inconsistency. Despite a 17-15 record going into Tuesday’s game, the Pacers have struggled this year as in few others.

Thankfully, the dramatic intrasquad conflicts of years past have disappeared. But in their place has come a complacency and struggle for identity.

Is this Jermaine O’Neal’s team? It should be, but the perennial All-Star has yet to establish dominance on a game-to-game basis. And while any athlete, even a great one, will struggle over the long haul of an 83-game NBA season, O’Neal’s ups and down have been especially hard to explain.

He followed up a 26-point performance on Dec. 13 against the Pistons with an 11-point effort two nights later against the woeful New York Knicks. After scoring 31 and 34 points in consecutive games on Dec. 17 and 20, in his next two games he scored 16 and 11.

After sitting out the Dec. 26 game against Houston, he scored 25 points in the next two games.

And so has gone the Pacers’ season.

Is this Al Harrington’s team? He too has played erratically. Although averaging 15.8 points per game, he’s gone through horrible shooting slumps and more than his share of foul trouble. Against Philadelphia on Dec. 20, he shot just three of 11. Two nights later, he dropped 20 points on the Atlanta Hawks.

After playing a key role in the victory over the Pistons last Friday, he was ineffective against Charlotte the next night.

With neither player being a superstar on every night, the burden has fallen on the Pacers’ other players. Their theme has been inconsistency, too.

On some nights, Stephen Jackson looks like an NBA All-Star. On other nights, he looks lost in the headlights. The same could be said for Jamaal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels and Danny Granger.

Sarunas Jasikevicius, despite being immensely talented, still hasn’t found a way to break into the starting lineup.

So what can the Pacers do, as the team approaches the halfway point of the season? With no obvious trade bait on the roster, and their key players unable to take charge, it looks like there’s nothing but a .500 record and a first-round playoff exit in the Pacers’ cards.

But if the team’s recent history has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected from the Pacers. O’Neal might score 50 points or he might score three. The team might win six straight or they might drop a dozen in a row.

For a city used to excellence from its team, it’s a frustrating situation. But knowing to not know what to expect seems the only sure bet for the fans of the Blue and Gold.