. . . than to get too excited, but the rebuilt/reborn post-Auburn Hills Pacers are now 4-3, and winning the "guts" battle night in and night out. Tonight, they went into New Jersey (who, to be fair, are not good, and missing Devon Harris to boot), and won pretty easily WITHOUT Danny Granger (25.3 ppg), Mike Dunleavy (19.1 ppg last year, yet to play this year), and Troy Murphy (9.2 rpg). 2008 so far has been T J Ford's coming out party - he's the pro everyone thought he would be all those years ago at Texas, before that horrific fall in Milwaukee almost paralyzed him. Tonight, the Mighty Mite's line looked like this: 18 points (7-14 from the field, 4-5 from the line), 8 rebounds (??!! - he's barely 6' & 165 lbs.), 9 assists, 3 steals, and a whole bunch of deflections (a stat the Pacers track that doesn't show up in most box scores). He's making a beleaguered Larry Bird look like a genius so far.
For those of you not tracking the NBA this year, Larry Legend finally cleaned out the remnants of the O'Neal/Artest team that imploded at the Palace in Auburn Hills November 19, 2004 . . . the infamous brawl that destroyed the team on the brink of its rise to the top of the NBA. Bird and then-team president Donnie Walsh gambled by sticking with their talented team the next year, which turned out to be a bad idea, since Artest once again imploded. Gone are the crazies (Artest, Jackson), the thugs or those-who-have-thugs-in-their-orbit (Tinsley, Williams . . . though Williams is, by all accounts, a very nice kid who doesn't use the word "no" when it comes to his posse), and the good (Jermaine O'Neal, one of the true citizens of the NBA who gave his best years to the P). This year, Bird made the purge final by moving O'Neal to Toronto for Ford and, when no one would trade anything (anything at all!) for Tinsley, telling him to go home & collect his paycheck until his contract runs out (technically, he's still on the roster, but he's pointedly "not welcome" around the Pacer's facilities). Only Jeff Foster remains from that ill-fated 2004-2005 team, the team that should have finally won Reggie Miller his ring.
Bird caught a fair amount of heat for acquiring Ford, given T J's history of injuries, but I never understood why. First of all, O'Neal's recent injury history isn't much better; and secondly, he really didn't have much choice. Moving "huge upside" in the form of Jaryd Bayless (who will indeed become a full grown man with the Blazers in a few years) for Jarrett Jack was also controversial, but Jack is tank of a point who is the perfect rugged foil to Ford's perceived fragility. That, plus it's a nice offensive changeup to throw at a defense - you spend most of the first half chasing Ford all over the court, then Jack comes in and starts running right at (and over) you, posting you up like he's Wilt (or, more accurately, Mark Jackson) in the point. On top of that, you've got a coach on his third strike (Jim O'Brien, who couldn't agree with Danny Ainge on how best to clean up Rick Pitino's mess in Boston, and then couldn't gain the dubious blessing of Billie King in Philly), a Dukie (Josh McRoberts) who gives you serious value in limited minutes, Travis Deiner launching jumpers from Monument Circle (and doing a reasonable job spelling the point as well), Roy Hibbert being 7 foot, etc. Things should be interesting when Dunleavy gets back, especially since Granger has stepped up to be a real scoring threat - a real 25/5/3 guy. If Dunleavy can keep up around 18 a game, and Ford can be a double/double guy, then things look interesting for this newly "scrappy" squad. The ceiling here is playoffs & a gutsy performance therein. Nothing more, nothing less.
Talking about playing basketball "the right way" is dodgy, because there's a trap door into the culture wars there . . . but, there is a right way to play basketball (many, actually), & the Pacers are doing it. So far, so good. Here's to seeing the P in the playoffs this year, and not having to settle for a first round exit next.
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Greg Oden debuted tonight and looked like Tree Rollins with arthritis. It's still early, though.
Uhm, don't look now, but the Hawks are really good. Can this last? Remember, they didn't knock the Pacers out of the playoffs last year until the second to last game of the season. And then, they up and took the (eventual champs) Celtics to the final game of the series, a series which saved Mike Woodson's job. Right now, they look one step below the Celtics and one step above the Cavs and the Pistons in the East. I would be surprised if that held, but only a little.
There was a fight in the Houston/Phoenix game tonight. The big surprise? Artest wasn't involved.
Speaking of the Rockets, they may be very dangerous as some point. Or, they may remain the same mess they are right now. The fact is, Artest has never fully gelled with any team, and as much as I hope it happens (I am a huge fan of Ron-Ron), I don't see it. Unfortunately, this may be his last chance, barring a late career "triumph of the will over diminished skills" resurrection into relevance. Come to think of it, if I were a betting man, that's where my money would ride.
Shaq hit two free throws in a row tonight. Saw it with my own eyes, or I wouldn't have believed it. Actually, he's looked very good tonight, almost like his old self. Phoenix may figure out how to use the Big Narc after all.
Well, that's it. That Motorhead post is coming very soon.