Today marks the one-month anniversary of The Brawl. Amazingly, life has gone on.
There doesn't appear to be any major fallout in terms of fan neglect; the product was doing a good enough job of that as it was. But there's no denying the Detroit-Indiana melee and resulting suspensions impacted the teams involved, one of which, the Pacers, is still trying to recover from having its roster gutted by commissioner David Stern. Here's a brief look at what has happened to the teams in the last month. They will meet again Christmas Day in Indiana.
The defending NBA champion lost Big Ben Wallace for six games and has, at times, looked like your classic victim of Post Championship Stress Disorder. Heading into the weekend, the Pistons were a ho-hum 12-10, which qualified for fifth best in the Eastern Conference. They've been playing dangerously close to the edge - just good enough to win - and in some cases, not even that good. They got crushed at home by Atlanta, after all. You need not look too far to get a read on the Pistons' early struggles. They're missing some key reserves from last year's team (Corliss Williamson, Mike James, Mehmet Okur) and the coaching staff turned over (with the exception of Larry Brown, who also missed time with a hip replacement).
Then there's the Detroit defense. We sure saw it in the second half against Cleveland Thursday night (6 points for the Cavs in the third quarter) but it hasn't been nearly what it was last year. And last year it was the Pistons' raison d'etre.
In 2003-04, the Pistons ranked first, along with San Antonio, in points allowed, surrendering 84.3 a game. This year, after 22 games, they were third, but were allowing almost 5 more points a game. Last year, the Pistons held opponents to 41.3 percent shooting, third best in the league behind the Spurs and Rockets. This year, they were sixth, allowing teams to shoot 43.1 percent. Last year, they were the best defensive team in the league against the 3-point shot. This year, they were 21st. The Pistons had a rocky start last season as well. There was a six-game losing streak in February before and after the All-Star Game. Then Rasheed Wallace came aboard and the Pistons finished 21-6 and won the title. There's still lots of time.
I said it two weeks ago. I'll say it again. Rick Carlisle is the only choice for Coach of the Month for December. What he has had to endure and deal with on a daily basis borders on the ridiculous. As team president Donnie Walsh
said, "It's not that we're just missing the three guys [Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson] but he has had games where he's only had six players." The Pacers have put together a patchwork team on the fly. They signed New Orleans Hornets rejects. They brought in old paint Michael Curry. Last week, Jackson and O'Neal got some practice time in. If nothing happens on the legal front, they'll be back in a month or so.
As for Artest, the league at first told Indiana that it would not allow Artest to practice. The Pacers thought that overly harsh and asked the league to reconsider. It did. Artest has been given the OK to practice and Walsh said he
expects the future Berry Gordy Jr. to be at practice this week. The Pacers hit the skids after a brief honeymoon following the suspensions. But they've since gotten back Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster, although other rotation
guys (Austin Croshere, Jamaal Tinsley) have been in and out. The Pacers are 0-5 when Tinsley doesn't play. Carlisle has kept Indiana focused on the short term and, incredibly, they are still very much in the hunt in the Central Division, trailing leader Cleveland by only 1 1/2 games. They would be the sixth seed had the playoffs started yesterday.
Walsh is hopeful.
"Before all this happened, we were playing really well and we were kicking their [rear ends] the night it happened," he said, speaking of the Pacers' convincing win at Detroit Nov. 19. "I thought then that we had as good a chance as anyone to win it all." And they still might. We still don't know what the arbitrator is going to say concerning the severity of the suspensions and if they are appealable to someone other than Stern. There remains the possibility that Artest's suspension might be reduced. But even with O'Neal and Jackson coming back, the Pacers will be in the hunt in the East.