INDIANAPOLIS - The Indiana Pacers remember what happened last season. So they’re not about to gloat about their success so far.
The Pacers enter the All-Star break with the most wins in the NBA and, at 39-14, their best record ever as an NBA franchise. They’ve led the Eastern Conference from opening night and have yet to lose more than two games in a row.
Yet coach Rick Carlisle’s mantra remains: “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Last year, the Pacers entered the break at 34-15, tied for first place in the East. But they were 14-19 after it amid distractions on and off the court. And they failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season.
Everyone says this year is different.
“It’s a stepping-stone process with success in this league,” CEO Donnie Walsh said.
“The young players took winning for granted and we kind of lost it toward end of the year. This year, they know that can happen and they know what they can do.”
Carlisle and new president Larry Bird have been steadying, disciplined influences and the team hopes to remain healthy.
The Pacers’ record is especially impressive given that Carlisle took over when Isiah Thomas was fired during training camp.
“With us making a coaching change a month before the season started, this team was in turmoil,” Reggie Miller said.
Still, Indiana started the season 14-2 and holds a 6½-game lead over Detroit in the Central Division.
“We’ve played well. I’m surprised because we have a new coaching staff,” Walsh said. “I thought it would take us longer to adjust to the system we’re using.”
One reason is that the Pacers have been able to focus on basketball.
Last year Jermaine O’Neal’s stepfather tried to commit suicide, Jamaal Tinsley’s mother died of cancer, Ron Artest was suspended for 12 games for conduct on the court and Miller was hampered by an ankle injury.
This year, O’Neal and Artest are headed to the All-Star game. O’Neal may be the only legitimate MVP candidate in the Eastern Conference, while Artest is being noticed more for defensive brilliance and solid offense than flagrant fouls or emotional outbursts.
Tinsley has become a leader on the court and offseason ankle surgery has the 38-year old Miller playing like he did five years ago.
Carlisle has been in the middle of it all, preaching his gospel of daily improvement and defensive tenacity.
“I think it’s a combination of the way Rick came in with a very structured approach to the game, and the players are a year older and have gone through a tough year last year,” Walsh said.
Can the Pacers sustain their run for the final 29 games?
“Now we have the experience and we know what it takes to lose games and we know what it takes to win games,” O’Neal said. “I think we should have no trouble keeping pace.”
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