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Original Issue

Pace Setters With something old and something new, Indiana made Philly blue, seizing the home court advantage

All season long Isiah Thomas had talked about preparing his
Indiana Pacers for the playoffs. It was a complicated job: Along
the way he had to learn how to coach, teach three players who
never went to college how to play and reorganize the team
following the loss of three starters from last year's Eastern
Conference champs. Thomas faced his first postseason exam last
Saturday, and he aced it as the Pacers upset Philadelphia 79-78
to take a surprising 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.

Thomas didn't seem surprised. His team had endured a frustrating
regular season with a .500 record while he tried to rebuild with
old and new parts. Against the Sixers last Saturday, however, he
gave all but 56 of the minutes to veterans such as Reggie Miller,
who missed 16 of 20 shots before knocking down the game-winning
three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left. The only youngster to play
more than nine minutes was 22-year-old center Jermaine O'Neal
(below), who produced 20 rebounds and three blocks in a virtual
standoff with the 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo (22 boards, five
blocks). "When I got traded here, I wanted to be back in the same
position the team was in last year, trying to win the NBA
championship," says O'Neal, who came to Indiana in a preseason
trade for Dale Davis that now looks like a steal. "I've had 82
practice games to get ready for the real season, and the real
season is now."

O'Neal's spectacular performance in the paint--in his first
playoff start, no less--helped the Pacers satisfy all three of
Thomas's criteria for victory: to negate the 76ers' advantage on
the boards, to limit their opportunities at the foul line
(Philadelphia made 15 free throws, only three more than Indiana)
and to avoid turnovers despite Philadelphia's intense half-court
pressure. Travis Best was superb in meeting the last of those
challenges. Though he almost didn't play because of a lower back
strain, Best responded to a rare start with 16 points and 10
assists, and the Pacers committed just seven turnovers.

Almost as surprising as the Pacers' comeback from an 18-point
deficit to win in Philadelphia is the fact that they're in the
playoffs at all. At times this year Indiana looked dreadful, and
it was reported that Thomas was losing control of the team as
well as the faith of team president Donnie Walsh. Those reports
were angrily denied by Walsh, who, after all, had hired Thomas
with the understanding that the team might have to take a step
back while O'Neal, Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender (average
age: 21) were developing. Thomas's retooled Pacers seemed to hit
stride late in the year, closing out the regular season with an
8-2 run that earned him NBA Coach of the Month honors. "We're not
developing our team like everyone else does," Thomas said last
Friday of his experimentation with myriad lineups. (He used
another new set of starters last Saturday, the 18th this season.)
"We want basketball players. We don't want guys who can only play
with certain guys."

With the Pacers having seized the home court advantage, the
series will turn on the outcome of the two games at Conseco
Fieldhouse. The 76ers were the NBA's best road team with 27 wins
this year, but that won't help unless Allen Iverson finds a way
to overcome the constant double-teaming that held him to 19 shots
and 16 points last Saturday.

If those numbers weren't bad enough, one more stat looms darkly
for the Sixers. In Indiana's 25-year NBA history, the Pacers have
played in 23 playoff series. In every one of them, the team that
won Game 1 won the series.

--Ian Thomsen