- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Mr. Inflexible dusted off Mr. Forgotten, and the Indiana Pacers evened the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals at 2-2 last night with their best all-around effort of the series.

Austin Croshere made his first start in more than two years and scored 14 points, providing the Pacers with a much-needed extra offensive option in an 83-68 victory over the Detroit Pistons.

“It was a little bit of a gamble because defensively you don’t get the same type of activity that you do with [Jeff] Foster, but Austin changed the game,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “I just thought it was a gamble worth taking. It’s certainly not a cure-all.”

Getting off to a rare good start and sustaining a respectable shooting percentage, the Pacers avoided their first three-game losing streak of the season and regained the homecourt advantage for what’s now a best-of-3 series.

Carlisle pulled a surprise by turning to Croshere in place of Foster — a move even more stunning because it was made by a coach whose resistance to change has been cited as one of his negative personality quirks.

“Rick likes to pretty much keep it simple. He’s not one of those guys that likes to change his lineup or change the style his team plays from game to game, but tonight was definitely a change for the better,” guard Anthony Johnson said.

Croshere, who averaged only five points this season — his sixth in the league — hadn’t contributed much of anything since the 2000 NBA Finals, when he scored a career-high 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and was rewarded with a seven-year, $51million contract.

Croshere, whose scoring average dropped from 10.1 to 6.8 to 5.1 in his first three seasons after signing the big contract, didn’t even play in three of the Pacers’ first 13 playoff games.

“To get the opportunity to step up in a game like this, it’s great,” said Croshere, whose six points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter of Game3 prompted Carlisle to make the change.

“We wanted to take advantage of the way they were collapsing on our big guys,” Croshere said. “If Jermaine beat someone, there was another shot blocker there. But with me being on the perimeter, it really spread the floor and made them have to be honest with me.”

Croshere ended the first half with a 3-pointer and began the second half with another to put the Pacers ahead 52-39. Moments later, he was left wide open at the 3-point line. As Pistons fans let out a collective groan, Croshere nailed the shot for a 17-point lead that eventually grew as large as 23.

Detroit fans even booed a bit over the remainder of the third quarter.

“We can’t play any worse than we did tonight,” Pistons coach Larry Brown said. “We weren’t ready to play, and that’s on me.”

The series resumes tomorrow in Indianapolis, with Game 6 back in Auburn Hills on Tuesday night.

After struggling to score throughout most of Games 2 and 3, it was a different story for Indiana in Game 4. With the addition of another outside shooting threat preventing the Pistons from sending extra defenders into the paint, everyone on the Pacers benefited. Ron Artest scored 20 points, Reggie Miller added 15 and O’Neal had 12. Artest also had 10 rebounds and four assists.

After shooting no better than 34 percent in the first three games, Indiana finished at 46 percent.

“Sometimes you have to make changes to win; that’s what makes good coaches,” Artest said. He made four of his first five shots and ended the first quarter with 12 points as Indiana opened a 29-17 lead.

The Pacers got a scare late in the period when O’Neal landed awkwardly while going for a rebound and mildly sprained his left knee. Detroit had a 7-0 run early in the second quarter while O’Neal went to the locker room for a checkup.

He returned less than two minutes into the period and spurred the Pacers to a 6-0 run as the Pistons began getting sloppy with the ball and turning it over.

Croshere’s two 3-pointers early in the third quarter helped Indiana get off to a 7-for-9 start while Detroit was going 2-for-15. Chauncey Billups scored nine straight points to cut Detroit’s deficit to 72-61, but Artest answered with consecutive 12-footers from the lane and the Pistons never threatened again.

Richard Hamilton led Detroit with 22 points and Billups had 21.

“What our guys have to remember is the pressure’s not on them, the pressure’s on Detroit,” Carlisle said. “Their whole season is made or broken on whether they go to the finals.”

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