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Carlisle, ONeal have Pacers on a roll

When Hollywood casts for 'The Rick Carlisle Story,' Jim Carrey will get the lead role. For appearance's sake only, understand. Where Carrey is the ultimate party guy, loony and gregarious, Carlisle comes across as staid and taciturn, especially while working an NBA sideline.

But what Carlisle does works. The one-time assistant coach under P.J. Carlesimo in Portland won 50 games back to back in his two years as a head coach in Detroit, then got dumped when the Pistons had a chance to hire Larry Brown.

Carlisle wasn't idle long. His old Boston Celtics buddy, Larry Bird, was signed to call the shots in Indiana, then promptly sent Isiah Thomas packing and hired Carlisle.

Early results have been more than promising. The Pacers, who come calling at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, were 14-3 going into Monday's visit to Phoenix, the second stop on a key five-game West Coast road trip.

'We are happy to be where we are,' says Carlisle, 44. 'We seem to have gradually improved over the first month. The key thing is to continue to get better. This trip is a big test for us.'

Indiana has been here before. The Pacers started last season 14-2 and were 37-15 before they began to discombobulate. They finished the regular season 48-34 and raised the white flag in the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Things are different this season under Carlisle, one of the game's brightest minds. The biggest improvement has been with the Pacers' defense. They lead the league in points allowed per game (81.5) and are fourth in opponents' field goal percentage (.413), compared with figures of 93.3 and .428 a year ago. Carlisle credits Dick Harter, who worked with him on Carlesimo's Blazer staff from 1994-97, as being an influence on that side of the ball.

'Our defensive system has changed from what (the Pacers) had a year ago,' Carlisle says. 'The players have worked hard to buy into it, and it's been the reason we've had some success so far.'

During a telecast of a Pacers game last week, John Thompson expressed the opinion that the Blazers were patient with Jermaine O'Neal during his four years in Portland.

'Portland was patient with him, and now it is paying off for Indiana,' fellow analyst Steve Kerr observed.

Indeed. The 6-11, 245-pound O'Neal is firmly embedded as the best big man in the East, averaging 19.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots. And the young man known as 'The Kid' during his Portland years is all of 25. O'Neal grumbled when Thomas was let go, but his relationship with Carlisle seems to be going smoothly.

'My complete experience in -2 1/2 months with Jermaine has been great,' Carlisle says. 'He has been the utmost in professionalism. There's no player in the Eastern Conference I would rather have on my team. He's the guy I want to work with more than anyone else, and there are some damn good players in the East.'

The other key for Indiana has been the confluence of Ron Artest as player and professional. The talented, enigmatic hothead of years past Ñ he missed 12 games last season as a result of suspension or disciplinary action Ñ has no technicals or flagrant fouls thus far this season.

At 24, Artest has developed an all-around game that should make him an All-Star this season. The 6-7, 245-pound small forward is averaging 18.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, shooting at career-best levels from the field and 3-point range, and is the defensive stopper that most teams can only dream of.

'Ron is playing at a high level at both ends,' Carlisle says. 'He has made this season about basketball.'

Did Carlisle get through to Artest where Thomas couldn't?

'We talked about a lot of things, but those things are private,' Carlisle says. 'The bottom line for the team was, we needed to cut down on the number of technicals and flagrants. Last year, when the Pacers had one or more T's in a game, they were a sub-.500 club. The numbers don't lie. The players have taken that to heart and worked at playing with poise and composure, and that has to continue.'

Second-year guard Fred Jones, out of Barlow High and Oregon, has earned a place in the rotation, averaging 2.9 points in 16.4 minutes a game. Shooting is what the 6-3 Jones must work on most: He's .311 from the field, this year .133 from 3-point range.

'Freddie has been solid,' Carlisle says. 'He can do a lot of good things. He's an NBA-caliber defender who has done a great job on (Allen) Iverson and Jason Terry in spots. He attacks the rim, can make plays with the ball, and is a very good midrange shooter. I think he has a good career ahead of him.'

Carlisle isn't trying to hog credit for the Pacers' quick start. After a win last week, he made a special effort to pay tribute to Thomas.

'This was an incredibly hard job for three years, many of the players being so young,' Carlisle says. 'They are not so young anymore, so I benefit from that. Isiah had a positive influence with them. I know they were hearing the right things about being competitive and playing with a high level of intensity and sharing the ball.'

With the emergence of Artest and Al Harrington, and if graybeard Reggie Miller has another big playoff run in him, the Pacers ought to make it to the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. On paper, they are the best team in the East, and Carlisle seems to be pushing the right buttons.

'For us, this season has to be about sustaining this level of play through 82 games and into the postseason,' Carlisle says. 'It is too early to talk about how good we are. That's why I'm not getting overly excited about our start. '

Or, as O'Neal told the Indianapolis Star: 'We don't want to pull out the champagne bottles right now.'