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The next fight

As expected, David Stern came down hard on the principals in Friday's Pacers-Pistons brawl. Now the Commish better be prepared for a fight of his own.

The Pacers and the players union, in particular, are likely to howl over this decision. The Pacers will say they're being made scapegoats. The players union will file appeals. Both sides will claim the NBA is putting PR over true justice.

In some ways, they will be correct. David Stern clearly is more concerned with sending a message to middle America than he is with dispensing justice. But that's his job. He's a CEO, not a judge. His aim is to protect the NBA's image so it remains a viable entertainment product.

The Pacers really can't argue too much about Ron Artest's punishment. While it's true he doesn't deserve all the blame he's been getting -- Ben Wallace overreacted after his initial foul -- the fact is he broke a cardinal rule in going into the stands to fight a fan. No matter how much he was provoked, Artest was wrong. Given his past transgressions -- and odd behavior of late -- the NBA was justified in sitting him down for the season.

Indiana has a much stronger argument on Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal. Jackson definitely deserved a long suspension for going into the crowd, throwing punches, and generally elevating a dangerous situation on the court. But a few years back Vernon Maxwell got 10 games for going into the crowd to slug a fan who was heckling him. In Friday's incident, Jackson went in to defend a teammate. One could argue he gets more leeway than a guy who simply responds to verbal threats. Sticks and stones are one thing; beer cups in the face are another. The Pacers could make a good case that 20 games for Jackson would have been fair.

O'Neal's suspension also seems a bit harsh. Yes, he decked a fan on the court. But at that point the mob scene had become dangerous, with angry fans coming onto the floor, and O'Neal had no way of knowing if the fan had bad intentions. The frustrating part is that O'Neal has been a solid citizen in his NBA career, and he probably never would have been involved in anything like this if the whole scene had not gone so out of control.

The Pacers no doubt hope to get the suspensions staggered, but either way it will be a blow to their title chances. Losing Artest for the season is one thing (heck, he was becoming a distraction anyway). But losing O'Neal and Jackson for so many games, along with Artest, disrupts Indiana's chemistry. If all three players can't play at the same time, the Pacers basically become the Bulls.

Indiana can still recover -- they should have their full team (sans Artest) by late January -- but it's going to cost them games in the standings. Maybe even home-court advantage in the playoffs. Indiana has proven it can win without Artest, but the road to the NBA title just got a whole lot tougher.