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Pacers and Nets peaking at the right time

By Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine

When the postseason begins next month, two of the most intriguing clubs in the East will be the Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets, the Pacers because - at least on paper - the combination of Jermaine O'Neal and Peja Stojakovic looks deadly, and the Nets because they've been the conference's best team over the past two weeks.

Both clubs will put their wares on display Sunday in nationally-televised games that could give an indication of what to expect come April. Indiana plays at the Philadelphia 76ers, and Jersey's in Motown.

We know what the Sixers and the Detroit Pistons are, and will be, next month. Philly will be dust, swept by either Detroit or Miami in Round 1, and Detroit will be the team to beat. So let's not spend a lot of time on them right now.

The Sunday game will be O'Neal's third since returning from a torn left groin and his third since Ron Artest was traded for Stojakovic. Interestingly, the Pacers' record is nearly as good without O'Neal as it is with him. They entered the game Friday against Detroit 15-15 with J.O. sidelined and just 19-17 with him playing.

Some things have changed since O'Neal went down in late January. With Stojakovic aboard, Coach Rick Carlisle has opened up the offense. The Pacers' halfcourt set features more movement and more drive-and-kick play than before, and they're also playing a bit more up tempo.

O'Neal should fit nicely into this scheme and be more productive than ever. With Artest, O'Neal had to share the block, but now it's all his. And Stojakovic's presence should spread the floor and give O'Neal more room to operate. It looks like it could be a superb inside-outside combination.

Throw in a healthy Jamaal Tinsley, an improved Anthony Johnson plus Stephen Jackson, who can replace some of Artest's post game when necessary and also drive and shoot jumpers, and you've got a dangerous offensive team. Oh, and rookie Danny Granger, who the Pacers think can be a star, is getting better and better.

"We definitely miss Ron defensively,'' Jackson told me last week. "Now we have to focus more on team defense because we don't have his great one-on-one defense. But offensively, we could be more of a threat with Peja. We could be better on that end.''

There's no way to avoid the defensive drop-off when you lose Artest, but Peja hasn't made the Pacers as soft as some thought he would. He's been rejuvenated in Indy and not just because his scoring average (19.3) and field goal percentage (.457) are way up since the trade. Indiana has been pleasantly surprised by Stojakovic's defense (not great but adequate) and his rebounding. He's grabbed 6.5 a game for the Pacers, a number Artest has never reached in his career.
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A good read. I think he's right, the team is getting healthy and looks scary, as they showed today, they made alot of mistakes, but they killed the Sixers. Seeing Peja and O'Neal together will be fun. Hopefully it's not too little, too late, with the injuries and stuff. But i'm liking what i am seeing.
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