#1 Indiana Pacers With a team that's tight and tested, they're set to take it all--if they can pass their boards

February 08, 1999

When Michael Jordan announced his retirement, there was a
misconception that other contending teams throughout the NBA
rejoiced. Not the Pacers. "I'm disappointed," says coach Larry
Bird. "I wanted to beat the Bulls at their best."

Indiana came excruciatingly close to doing just that in last
year's Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers not only forced
Chicago and His Airness to a seventh game, but they also led by
three points midway through the fourth quarter. With revenge no
longer a motive, Bird has settled on a new way to use Jordan's
departure as a prod. "The only reason it's good that Michael
retired is that now there's pressure on us to win it," he says.
"I like that."

What's not to like about a squad that retains every significant
member from last season? The club's key free agents, center Rik
Smits and point guard Travis Best, were re-signed, and another
veteran big man, 37-year-old Sam Perkins, was added. Perkins
should provide perimeter production for a team that, at times,
struggled to score.

The most daunting challenge facing Bird in his second year on
the job is to keep the atmosphere surrounding his team as
harmonious as it was in his rookie season. When Best emerged as
a crunch-time point guard against the Bulls, the usual closer,
veteran Mark Jackson, cheered him on from the bench. When Smits
was sidelined with sore feet, Antonio Davis came in and
flourished, then voluntarily stepped aside when Smits was able
to return.

Yet Bird is aware that Davis wants to be a starter and that he
might have to make a choice between Antonio and the other
Davis--Dale--for the power forward job. Also pushing for more
playing time is Jalen Rose, the versatile fifth-year swingman
who was brilliant at times last season and who could well be the
team's point guard of the future. For now that job remains in
the capable hands of Jackson, who joins with hot-handed shooting
guard Reggie Miller to form one of the premier backcourts in the

Indiana's starting lineup averages a grizzled 32.9 years of age,
and that venerability could be a source of vulnerability. The
32-year-old Smits, who has been nagged throughout his career by
foot injuries, says his off-season work with physical therapist
Dan Dyrek, who used to help Bird with his balky back, has saved
his career. If Smits goes down again, however, the Pacers
immediately suffer, especially on offense.

There is one other detail from Game 7 against Chicago that
haunts Indiana: a 22-4 advantage by the Bulls on the offensive
glass. The Pacers were the third-worst rebounding team in the
league last season, and nobody needs to remind them that that's
no way to contend for a championship. --Jackie MacMullan

COLOR PHOTO: FRANK MCGRATH/NBA PHOTOS Best shot After a near miss last year, streak-shooting Miller may score a ring.


Starters PVR* 1997-98 Key Stats

SF Chris Mullin 120 11.3 ppg 48.1 FG% 44.0 3FG% 93.9 FT%
PF Dale Davis 115 8.0 ppg 7.8 rpg 1.12 bpg 54.8 FG%
C Rik Smits 39 16.7 ppg 6.9 rpg 1.21 bpg 49.5 FG%
SG Reggie Miller 26 19.5 ppg 2.1 apg 47.7 FG% 42.9 3FG%
PG Mark Jackson 55 8.3 ppg 8.7 apg 3.9 rpg 41.6 FG%

Top Reserves Bench Ranking (out of 29 teams): 1

G-F Jalen Rose 124 9.4 ppg 2.4 rpg 1.9 apg 47.8 FG%
C-F Sam Perkins[+] 142 7.2 ppg 3.1 rpg 41.6 FG% 39.2 3FG%
F-C Antonio Davis 172 9.6 ppg 6.8 rpg 0.88 bpg 48.1 FG%

1997-98 Record: 58-24 (second in Central)
Coach: Larry Bird (second season with Pacers)

[+]New acquisition
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 68)

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)