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Lakers' Victory Is Finalized Early

Looking nothing like last season's NBA finals team or a title contender, the young Pacers somehow still manage to talk the talk.

November 29, 2000|MARK HEISLER

These are the good old days?

For those who thought the Laker-Pacer rivalry disappeared over the summer, along with the Pacers, the new Indiana coach, Isiah Thomas, says it's still on.

"We still think we'll be back here, playing the Lakers in June," Thomas said before Tuesday night's game. " . . . And by the way, I do hate the Lakers."

Thomas concedes his team has a lot of work to do. First, it must get back to the .500 mark, having fallen to 6-7 after the Lakers hammered them, 124-107.

Another NBA finals run seemed more realistic last summer when Thomas took the Pacer job, succeeding Larry Bird, and announced he had come to lead this veteran team over the last hurdle.

Then Mark Jackson left for Toronto, Rik Smits retired and Dale Davis said he was unhappy with the $6 million he was making annually, right after signing a contract extension, and was sent packing too. Suddenly, Thomas, the one-time Detroit Bad Boy, was no longer the coach of the Pacer Old Boys. This was more like a kindergarten.

Tuesday night, with 22-year-old Jermaine O'Neal held out of the starting lineup for being late, Thomas started a front line made up of two forwards, Austin Croshere, 25, and Jonathan Bender, 19, and one projected point guard, Jalen Rose.

Croshere, the Crossroads High alum, was supposed to guard Shaquille O'Neal, which meant he'd be giving away 100 pounds and would do well to escape with his life.

Bender was making his second career start and apparently confused it with a three-point shooting contest, rarely straying far from the arc or passing.

"We've got a ways to go," Thomas was saying before the game, which bore him out. "We've definitely got a long way to go. However, it's not an impossible journey and it's a journey we're committed to taking.

"As long as the commitment is there, we'll continue to give them the information and the knowledge to go out on the court and compete and we'll put together a game plan that will give us a chance to win every night. And if we can execute the game plan, regardless of the opponent we're playing against--with the exception of Shaquille, 'cause there's no game plan for him, other than just let him do his thing and try to stop everybody else."

O'Neal averaged 39 points against the Pacers last spring and that was against the 7-foot-4 Smits and the 6-11 Davis. He got 27 in 33 minutes Tuesday. Any more, Shaq doesn't care who they have, he starts to salivate when he sees Pacer uniforms.

The young Pacers did get Thomas' game plan half right. They didn't stop Shaq, as he predicted. Unfortunately for them, they didn't stop any of the other Lakers, either.

Nobody said it would be easy.

Before the game, Thomas got together with Magic Johnson, his old friend. Thomas said later he thinks Johnson will try to become a majority owner somewhere, which is also what Thomas says he wants to be one day.

Once bosom buddies, they were splitsville in the '90s, after their battles in the 1988 and 1989 finals, even if they used to kiss each other on the cheek before the opening tip, but now they're pals again.

"Well, I think any time you're in a championship, back to back, there are hard feelings," Johnson said. "I had to slam him, he had to hit me. So that's how it has to happen. It was a tough situation, a tough period for us. We were not friends.

"What happened was, he came out here with NBC [as an announcer] last year. My wife and I, remember, we couldn't leave [during the post-Game 6 riot]? So he grabbed me and pulled me in a corner and said, 'Man, this is stupid. This is crazy.' "

When Johnson walked into Thomas' office before Tuesday's game, Isiah was on his cell phone, calling home.

"I said, 'See, if you were coaching, you'd probably kick me off your staff right now,' " Thomas said.

"He said, 'Yeah, I wouldn't allow that.'

"And then his cell phone rang."

After that, the laughs thinned out for the Pacers, who are used to competing in the East, where everyone has forwards playing center.

See you in June, Isiah. It'll take a rally but Shaq, at least, is rooting for you.

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