It isn't often that the NBA can produce a playoff atmosphere in January. But postseason, seventh-game electricity heated up the sold-out, rocking Conseco Fieldhouse tonight as the Indiana Pacers won their 12th straight home game, 111-102, to end the Los Angeles Lakers' 16-game winning streak.
The Eastern Conference's top team ended the Lakers' achievement that had matched another 16-game streak by the 1990-91 Lakers. Those two Lakers streaks are second only to the franchise's 33-game run of 1971-72, which remains the longest string of victories in league history.
Travis Best, Austin Croshere and Sam Perkins--all reserves--scored 25 of Indiana's last 29 points to break open a tense struggle in which neither team could gain more than a six-point advantage until the final 5 1/2 minutes. Perkins hit a three-pointer to put the Pacers ahead to stay, 85-84, with 8 minutes 15 seconds to play. Then, Best and Croshere combined for 20 more points until Reggie Miller hit a 14-foot jumper to make the score 107-100 with 18 seconds remaining. Croshere and Miller each sank two more free throws, and all the Lakers, except for Glen Rice, fell virtually silent.
As 18,345 screamed with delight in the sparkling new arena, a half-dozen Pacers scored in double figures to offset 23 by Rice, 22 points and 14 rebounds by Shaquille O'Neal, 18 by Kobe Bryant and 15 by Ron Harper. Occasionally unstoppable, the massive O'Neal made only 10 of 25 shots.
Miller led the Pacers with 22, Jalen Rose added 19 and Mark Jackson 15, along with a game-high eight assists. Croshere led the Pacers in rebounding, with 12, as Coach Larry Bird neatly distributed the minutes and then watched every substitution he made produce. The low-key Bird claimed no special success for him and his team in ending the Los Angeles streak.
"They are a great team, the best we've seen so far," he said. "I don't think the victory sends any statements. We played at home, and we're a pretty good team at home."
Phil Jackson, who merely has transferred his coaching genius from Chicago to Los Angeles, has turned the Lakers from a showtime team to an actual team, based on the "Triangle" offense and solid defense. The Lakers have been on a scorching run since early December, when they were last beaten by Sacramento. Jackson, who with the ample help of Michael Jordan and Co. made history with the Bulls, brought the Lakers into tonight's game on a remarkable .861 pace, a 31-5 record. Their newfound discipline and success have been things to behold, and have made the Lakers the best drawing card in the NBA. An average of more than 18,000 have attended their last 17 road games.
"I thought it was a really good game," Jackson said. "This is as good as the Pacers have played. We didn't respond well to our small mistakes, which hurt us. Their high pick-and-roll and their threes are hard to cover. We made a lot of critical mistakes."
As for the streak, Jackson said: "All good things come to an end. We had 10 turnovers, which isn't bad for the road, but they all came at the wrong times. We didn't get the ball to Shaq as much as we should have. Croshere brings a lot from the bench."
The 6-foot-9, 242-pound Croshere has responded to Bird's call for more playing time to fill the role of the departed Antonio Davis. The third-year player from Providence was coming off a 15-point, 11-rebound effort against Washington. "Austin was phenomenal," said veteran Chris Mullin, himself a reserve as his career winds down. "He will get better the more he plays. His confidence level is building. Travis really played well and gave us a big lift."
Rice tried vainly to keep the Lakers in the game, but with O'Neal tiring and misfiring, the slower-footed Pacers outran the runners down the stretch. Croshere worked both boards, and he and Perkins combined with rugged defense that left Pacers starting center Rik Smits a spectator. "[Perkins] gave us big-time minutes on Shaq," Miller said. "It was definitely playoff atmosphere and we wanted this one badly."
"I take the blame for this loss," O'Neal said. "I don't usually miss 15 shots. Those were shots I usually make and should make. But, hey, I'll be back tomorrow. I guarantee it. The streak was cool, but it's over. We can learn a lot from this game."
CAPTION: Pacers guard Reggie Miller, who scored 22, draws a foul from Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal during third quarter.