INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Rasheed Wallace sauntered off the court and into the exit tunnel, pausing long enough to peel off his headband and hand it to a youngster wearing the rival’s colors.
“Just a kid that asked for a headband, wasn’t nothing more than that,” Wallace said.
It was, however, a lot more than an empty gesture.
On an afternoon when many expected the worst in the first meeting between Indiana and Detroit since their Nov. 19 brawl, peace prevailed—as did the Pistons.
Nobody charged into the stands, nobody tossed any beer, nobody threw punches or chairs. Instead, the most significant thing anyone hoisted was a 3-pointer by Wallace with 90 seconds left that ended the Pacers’ final hopes in Detroit’s 98-93 victory Saturday.
“It was just a regular game, everybody playing the way they play,” Pistons center Ben Wallace said. “It wasn’t like we were out there intimidated, not wanting to touch anybody because it might start a fight. We were out there to play basketball, and that’s the way it should be.”
The game went off with barely a harsh word exchanged by the teams, whose previous meeting degenerated into one of the worst melees in the history of U.S. professional sports.
Ben Wallace was booed every time he touched the ball, and fans behind the Detroit bench let loose with a few words of angry-but-clean heckling that the players ignored.
A tarp covered most of the exit tunnel, but it was unnecessary. The sellout crowd behaved, and the small contingent of fans who yelled at the Pistons as they walked off the court—none of whom appeared older than 12—wanted nothing more than a hand slap or a headband.
“I think it was over-hyped,” said Reggie Miller, who led Indiana with 24 points. “We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out game for 48 minutes. They did all the little things, and that made the difference.
The only positive for Indiana was the return of Jermaine O’Neal, whose brawl-related suspension was reduced by an arbitrator from 25 games to 15. O’Neal had 21 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, but his poor starts to the first and second halves set the tone on an afternoon when the Pacers too often had to play catch-up.
Richard Hamilton scored 25 points, Chauncey Billups made four 3-pointers and scored 20, Tayshaun Prince added 18 and Rasheed Wallace had 16 for the Pistons, who have been having their own problems since the brawl.
The victory moved the defending NBA champions just one game over .500 (13-12) in a season that has been defined by the Nov. 19 game against Indiana.
“People realize that was an unfortunate incident and will never happen again, and now we can get back to playing basketball,” said Pistons coach Larry Brown, whose disgust had grown over the past five weeks as he continued to be asked about the brawl.
“Closure” was a word being tossed around the Pistons’ locker room after they played one of their better all-around games this season against the opponent they knocked out of the Eastern Conference finals in six games.
“We needed this in the worst way,” Billups said.
Many of the Indiana fans were decked out in blue and gold Santa caps, and they booed Ben Wallace—whose shove of Pacers forward Ron Artest set off the sequence of events that led to players fighting with fans in the stands and on the court—even more than they booed Rasheed Wallace, who unleashed a string of expletives at the Indiana fans during last season’s playoffs.
“I feed off the booing, I love it when they boo,” Rasheed Wallace said. “Hopefully next time they’ll boo much louder.”
Artest remains suspended for the rest of the season. Teammate Stephen Jackson still must serve 14 games of a 30-game penalty.
Players from both teams passed out presents to children before tip-off. The pregame mood was light despite two fans sitting directly behind Brown wearing hockey masks and shoulder pads while waving a sign that read: “Who needs the NHL when the Pacers are playing the Pistons?” Other fans held signs that read” “Suspend Stern” and “Indiana Subs vs. Detroit Thugs.”
O’Neal missed his first three shots before connecting, but he ended the first half 2-for-9 and then came out and missed his first three attempts of the second half. When Carlisle rested his best players toward the end of the third quarter, Detroit had a 7-0 run and led 69-61 entering the fourth.
Indiana closed to 69-67 before Detroit responded with a 9-2 run, and Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace hit jump shots down the stretch to keep the Pacers at least six points down. Wallace’s final 3-pointer made it 89-80 with 1:29 left, and Indiana got no closer than five the rest of the way.
“Everybody’s happy this game is over. Now we can move on,” O’Neal said. “Sometimes when you’re so excited, it kind of exhausts you. I think the team, at times, wore out.”
The Pacers used their 15th different starting lineup. … Jeff Foster, who had 16 rebounds, has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in six consecutive games.