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Old school basketball found in East finals

Pacers, Pistons fans like their basketball pure, not all glittered up like Showtime
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This isn't the kind of basketball they want to see in Hollywood, where the home team scores just 30 points in the second half and can barely get the ball to the rim in the final four minutes. Jack and Denzel and the stars along Gucci Row want a show. They like their drama thick and the pace fast, and the Lakers are almost always built to give 'em plenty of both, whether we're talking about Wilt and West, Magic and Kareem, or Kobe and Shaq.

But here in the heartland, they're happy with a lot simpler brand of basketball. A cynic would suggest the good folks here had better be satisfied with complex trapping defenses and pick-and-rolls because all the megawatt players are out west. Even so, in the best of times, it's the sight of defense and diving on the floor that warms a Hoosier's heart, though not as much as Reggie Miller providing a throwback ending, hitting a three-pointer with 31 seconds left for his only basket in a 78-74 Pacers win in Game 1 of these Eastern Conference finals.

They will always take a good brawl on the hardwood here, and the same goes for Detroit. They like their basketball the same way they like their football, rough and preferably with a sneer. Here, the locals like to swap paint. In Detroit, there's nothing that brings a smile like the mention of The Bad Boys. Folks out here don't do fancy.

Detroit and Indianapolis are the only places in the league where people booed Michael Jordan and meant it. They like their basketball pure, not all glittered up like Showtime. So if you want acrobatics and theatrics, forget about watching the Pistons vs. Pacers because this series will be all elbows and knees, stare downs and flying spittle, Afros and cornrows.

Miller's three-point basket aside, Game 1 was otherwise no-frills, mostly blocked shots and bodies crashing to the floor in a heap. He struggled mightily before his decisive shot, though it must have been a huge relief to the Pacers to see their one true star come up big like he has so many times in the playoffs. The winners shot 33.7 percent for the game, which has to depress Detroit, to have played such wonderful defense and still lose.

While clearly short on star power, this series is host to the two biggest powder kegs in the league, Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest. It has got the last two defensive players of the year: Ben Wallace and Artest. It has got a Pistons team that held Jason Kidd without a basket in Game 7 of its second-round series and a Pacers team with three long, tall shot blockers (Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender). When the Pacers are introduced at the start of the game, their images appear on the big screen, their heads adorned in hard hats.

The two teams aren't devoid of offense. Miller, even at 38, knows when it's his time, even if he has been more facilitator than star this season. O'Neal was runner-up in the MVP voting, and he did score 20 per game. And on the Detroit side, Richard Hamilton is the new Reggie, running off screens, then catching and shooting faster than any player in the NBA. The sight of Miller chasing Hamilton is a little like watching that commercial where young Jordan plays old Jordan.

The series has a Pacers coach who used to coach the Pistons and a Pistons coach who used to coach the Pacers. In fact, the Pacers coach, Rick Carlisle, was fired less than a year ago and replaced by the Pistons coach, Larry Brown.

If you can settle for what happens on the court, and don't have to get your thrills from seeing a player jet in from a felony trial just before tip-off, it's not a bad little series, really.

Game 1 was better than that because of the offensive outburst in the first half (before the defenses took over).

We might not see another game in this series where the two teams combine for 89 points as they did here Saturday through the first two quarters. Despite the withering defense, a handful of players were able to find spots on the floor from which they could score or get to the basket.

Harrington, the 6-foot-9 forward who came into the league from St. Patrick High School in New Jersey, came off the bench to score 14 points. Meantime, Chauncey Billups, the Pistons guard who might have been the undoing of Rick Pitino in Boston, scored 17 points in the first half and continued to remind us of just how completely players can be transformed within a few years.

The 48 points the Pistons allowed in the first half must have been an affront to their manhood, given the way they smothered the Nets, and the Bucks before that. But the Pacers can be a matchup nightmare for any team, even the Lakers. The Pacers are so long and versatile, so athletic, and lest we forget, so young. Artest, for all his trials and tribulations with the Bulls and the Pacers, is just 24.

Bender, the 7-foot Mississippian who came to the league out of high school, is 23. Harrington has been in the league for six years, but is 24. O'Neal is in his eighth season, but is still just 25. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley is 26. It's just Miller who has got any significant age on him. Anyway, it's that combination of talent, depth, versatility and youth which leads the Pacers to dismiss any talk that there's nobody out there who can beat the Lakers.

The Pistons are likely to struggle offensively. Hamilton is as polished as any shooter in the league. And Billups can have dominant halves, even a few games. But with Rasheed Wallace limping around with an incredibly pained foot, the Pistons are don't have a ton of options offensively. On the team's dependence on Hamilton, Brown said before the game, "He's our best scorer. We've got to get him opportunities to score."

After building a nine-point lead, they cooled off in the second quarter, shot 29 percent, and found themselves down 48-41 at halftime.

In the playoffs, most teams are cooked when their stars don't score in abundance. Not these two, however. The Pistons struggled with shooting, but Ben Wallace had 15 rebounds before the end of the third quarter, and he and his teammates had blocked nine shots going into the fourth. And that's exactly how the Pistons stayed in it, climbing from eight down back to 61-58 to start the fourth.

Detroit actually crawled ahead by as many as three. Nonetheless, it was a cleanly played, Game, 1, but one wonders how long that can continue in a seven-game series with all the bumping and grinding, kneeing and elbowing, clutching and grabbing. Familiarity of this kind simply has to breed contempt, and perhaps in the mayhem, some pretty good basketball.