The circumstances have changed, but the goals have not. Though the Indiana Pacers open the 2004-05 regular season Wednesday night in Cleveland missing three injured starters, including MVP candidate Jermaine O'Neal, the team is not backing down from its primary objective.
After winning 61 games last season, then pushing into the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Detroit, the Indiana Pacers want to take at least one more step on the playoff ladder. Injuries to starters O'Neal, Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster (as well as key reserves Anthony Johnson and Jonathan Bender) will alter the way the season begins, but not how it ends.
"There's nothing that I've seen so far that is going to cause us problems past a certain point," said franchise President and CEO of the Indiana Pacers Donnie Walsh. "Injuries are part of it. We have a deep team. Guys that weren't expected to play minutes have to step up and play them now. And then, one-by-one, these (injured) guys will get back.
"I think you just have to play the process out, and if you have a good enough team you'll come back together and you'll end up being a really good team. I think we have that opportunity. This is going to occur at some point during the season. This just happened to occur at the beginning of the season. We're where we are. We've got to go out and deal with it, and I think we have enough players to deal with it."
Team President of the Indiana Pacers Larry Bird is concerned that the steady stream of injuries late in the preseason will diminish the team's level of cohesion, at least in the early stages of the season. Like Walsh, however, he doesn't believe that should diminish the long-term expectations.
"Everybody's probably excited about our season, especially our fans. And I'm excited about it," Bird said. "The thing that bothers me most is these guys haven't been together as a team throughout the exhibition season. So it'll hurt you a little bit. But sooner or later they're going to be back. I don't think this is going to happen all year -- hopefully not. You just move ahead. We've got a deep team and guys have got to step in and play.
"It's up to our players, especially the ones that made all the noise the last few years that they should be playing, to step in and get the job done. I like the core of of the Indiana Pacers. I'd like to win all the games but if you don't, you've got to build for the end of the season and the playoffs."