Artest: 'We were playing like robots
The stage was set for the Indiana Pacers to make a triumphant season home opener at Conseco Fieldhouse last Saturday. The stands were filled with 18,345 fans, awaiting a glimpse of the new-look Pacers. The Pacemates were back with new dance moves and costumes. Mark and Slick were sitting courtside, calling the action, and longtime PA announcer Reb Porter's voice boomed throughout the arena.
The Pacers' political prisoner, Ron Artest, was at long last freed to play a regular season game. The team's new home uniforms were being used for the first time.
The stars seemed to be aligned for a big Pacers win against the struggling Philadelphia 76ers.
Only one problem with that plan: The Pacers didn't show up for three and a half quarters. To the shock of the capacity crowd, and maybe even the 76ers themselves, Philly out-hustled, out-manned and out-played the Pacers, building up a 20-point lead before a Pacers comeback narrowed the gap.
It wasn't enough, however, and the Pacers dropped the first home game of the year, 111-109, as Chris Webber and Allen Iverson bested Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest down the stretch.
After the game, the Pacers seemed as befuddled as the fans.
"We waited too late to play," guard Jamaal Tinsley said. "[You] can't wait until the fourth quarter and then hope to play catch-up and win. We have to give Philly credit. They played very well tonight. They made shots when they had to and we didn't. We didn't play like we really wanted to win tonight."
"We came out flat," said forward Austin Croshere. "Everybody did, from top to bottom. We should have played the first three quarters the way we played the fourth."
"We came from 20 down in the third and that's rough business, even at home," coach Rick Carlisle said.
"I think the offense, we were playing like robots," Artest said. "It was hard to play the coach's offense today. I'm still learning this offense and it was hard adjusting to his offense today."
Almost alone among the players, O'Neal struck a defiant tone after the loss.
"This is something that every team goes through," O'Neal said to reporters in the locker room. "Some of you are getting ready to write articles about what's wrong with the Pacers. I can see it in your faces. At the end of the year, if we're not where we should be, you can put it on my shoulders."
Standing "O" for Artest
During the pregame introductions, Artest's name was announced first. The ovation that followed drowned out the rest of the players' names. If there was any question on how Artest would be received, it was answered Saturday.
"That was cool," Artest told NUVO. "They're happy to see me back. They're accepting me. That was very cool. I just wish we had won the game."
The Pacers began the season on a high note, with impressive victories over Orlando and Miami before the loss to Philly. Now the Pacers have to face two tough home games this week: Wednesday against Miami and Friday against an improved New Jersey Nets.
The Pacers will be playing a Shaquille O'Neal-less Miami Heat, as Shaq rolled his ankle after stepping on Artest's foot last Thursday. But Carlisle said that the team should not let up the pressure just because The Big Aristotle is injured.
"We went through this last year with Miami without Shaq," he said. "In many ways, they're a more difficult team to play, because now the ball is in Dwayne Wade's hands more. He has an Iverson-like impact on the game, in terms of penetration and making you guard. That's not taking anything away from Shaq, it's a testament to what a great player Dwayne Wade is. Last year without Shaq, we had to go to overtime to beat them at home, and it took some luck to do it."
The Pacers travel to Milwaukee on Saturday, following which they get a three-day break before facing the new-and-improved Charlotte Bobcats on the road. They'll return home Nov. 18 against the Bobcats.