The NBA season is postponed until July 31, when a 22-team tournament will take place as the league returns from its COVID-19 hiatus. With games on hold, fans have an opportunity to catch up on NBA history and look back on some of the most important moments and players.
The Indiana Pacers had a real shot to capture a championship in the early 2000s, especially during the 2004-2005 season. After the infamous ‘Malice at the Palace’ brawl, those aspirations went out the window.
After advancing to the 2000 NBA Finals and being defeated in six games by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pacers tinkered with their roster. They added pieces around veteran star shooting guard Reggie Miller, and by the 2003-2004 season, Indiana had assembled an even better roster to compete for a title.
In the summer after their Finals appearance, Pacers head coach and NBA legend Larry Bird stepped down from his position. Fellow basketball icon Isiah Thomas would be hired as head coach and spend three seasons with the team.
The same summer, Indiana dealt All-Star center Dale Davis to Portland for Jermaine O’Neal- the fifth year big man who would become a six-time All-Star with the Pacers.
As O’Neal developed into a star on his new team, the Pacers weren’t done making moves. Mid-season, they dealt Jalen Rose, a key player on their Finals run, and others for a collection of Chicago Bulls, most notably Ron Artest (later known as Metta World-Peace.)
The next three seasons were disappointments under Thomas’ coaching leadership. Indiana was swept as the eighth seed by the eventual conference champions in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs, after barely posting an above .500 record.
In 2003, the Pacers won 48 games, earning them the third-best record in the East. They lost in the first round yet again, this time against the lower-seeded Celtics.The following offseason, change came. Larry Bird was made the team’s president of basketball operations, and Rick Carlisle replaced Thomas as coach.
The 2003-2004 season was a breakout year for the Pacers, who won 61 games and earned the East’s best record. O’Neal, who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, was selected to the All-NBA Second Team and was an MVP candidate. Artest, who joined O’Neal as an All-Star, earned the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Behind the two stars, the Pacers were deep. Reggie Miller remained a contributor on offense even at 38-years-old, and Al Harrington was in the beginning stages of making his next step as a player. Fred Jones, Jamaal Tinsley, Jeff Foster, Scot Pollard and others rounded out the defensive-minded roster.
In the 2004 Playoffs, Indiana swept Boston and beat Miami in six games, pitting them against the third-seed Pistons, who had just defeated the Nets in seven games.
Detroit and Indiana, division rivals, clashed for six games, with the Pistons advancing to the NBA Finals. Despite their excellent season, the Pacers fell short of their second conference title in four years. The Pistons would go on to upset the Lakers in five games, who unraveled amid the Shaq and Kobe feud. The 2004 Pistons remain one of the fan-favorite teams of the 2000s.
Malice at the Palace and suspensions
The following offseason, Indiana made a few changes and re-tooled for another deep playoff run. Al Harrington, unhappy with his role on the bench, was dealt to Atlanta for forward Stephen Jackson, a key player on the Spurs’ 2003 championship team.
On November 19, 2004, the Pacers visited the Pistons in their first matchup of the season. Indiana, behind 24 points from Artest and a 20 point, 13 rebound game from O’Neal, earned a statement win with a score 97-82. However, in ‘garbage time’, a hard Artest foul on Pistons center Ben Wallace began a shoving match between the two teams. The following events made for one of the ugliest moments in the history of sports.
As the teams scuffled with coaches and referees trying to break it up, Artest laid down on the scorers table. A fan threw a cup of beer at him, and the fight escalated, with Artest and Jackson entering the stands. Piston Rasheed Wallace followed, while O’Neal punched a fan who ran onto the court.
The brawl was nearly a five-minute ordeal, with Pacers players getting beer cups and objects tossed on them as the walked to the locker room. To this day, professional sports hasn’t seen anything like. “This is a disgrace,” said ESPN broadcaster Bill Walton at the time.
NBA commissioner David Stern laid down the suspensions soon after: Artest was suspended for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, Jackson would sit 30 games, O’Neal would be suspended 15 games after a reduction, Ben Wallace would miss six games, and Pacer Anthony Johnson would be suspended for five.
With the team’s best players all missing significant portions of the season, it’s no surprise the Pacers failed to achieve what could have been a title run.
A lost title?
The Pacers struggle with their stars gone, relying heavily on rotation players. O’Neal and Jackson would both put up strong stats once they returned from suspension.
Indiana, 61-game winners the season prior, won just 44 games at the end of the year, making them the sixth seed in the East. In the first round, the Pacers beat the Celtics in a seven-game series, and advanced to face the Pistons in the semi-finals.
In the heavily anticipated rematch of the 2004 Conference Finals and of November’s brawl, Indiana took a 2-1 lead in the series behind O’Neal and Miller. However, Detroit was still too deep for Indiana, and would win the series in six games, with Rip Hamilton scoring 28 in the closeout game. Game 6 was Miller’s final game, scoring 27 and ending his career to a standing ovation from his home crowd. The Pistons would go on to face the Spurs in the 2005 Finals, losing in seven games.
The Pacers management traded several players the following season, including Artest to Sacramento in early 2006. O’Neal’s career would fizzle-out, and he was traded in 2008. The Pacers rebuilt, leading them to back-to-back conference finals appearances in 2013 and 2014, losing both times to the ‘Big Three’ Miami Heat.
The 2003-2004 season put the league on notice that Indiana had arrived as a contender with all the pieces needed to win championship: a sharpshooting veteran guard, the Defensive Player of the Year, a dominant big man, and a deep rotation. They ran into a better team, but improved that offseason. Had Artest and others not been suspended, Indiana was right in the mix to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2005.
Unfortunately for Pacers fans, the team best built to capture the franchise’s first NBA title is best remembered for the chaos that ensued at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The on-court scuffle, fan interference, and response from the Pacers players changed the trajectory of the franchise.
Stats credited to basketball-reference.com.