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Basketbrawl II?

Indiana is back from early-season melee to meet nemesis Pistons

By Perry A. Farrell

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers have been linked at the hip since Nov. 19, when a shoving match among players turned into Malice at the Palace.

Indiana's Ron Artest was suspended for the season. Teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal served 30- and 15-game suspensions.

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That the teams now meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning at 7 tonight at the Palace in Auburn Hills, is a testament to the will of the Pacers, who have used 31 starting lineups and whose first-round series against Boston went the distance. Saturday night, the Pacers beat the Celtics by 27 points in Game 7 at Boston's Fleet Center.

"We have a lot of respect for them," Pistons coach Larry Brown said Sunday. "They won a huge game (Saturday) night. You have to give them a lot of credit. After losing at home and all the bravado in Boston, then to go back there and win four games in Boston and win a must-win game like that . . . it speaks volumes about our opponent."

After dispatching the Celtics, the Pacers said they wanted to play Detroit.

"They got us -- they got us," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "We didn't care who we played -- we just wanted to play.

"All that other stuff doesn't matter. We played them to go to the Finals last year, and we won, 4-2. We're back this year. We'll see what happens."

Each team is comfortable on the other's floor. The Pistons have won four straight at Conseco Fieldhouse, including the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals last year and the two games there this season. Indy hasn't been bad at the Palace, winning three of four heading into tonight's opener.

In fact, the Pacers have thumped the Pistons twice at the Palace -- 97-82 in the infamous brawl game on Nov. 19 and 94-81 on March 25 in a game that was delayed about 90 minutes by a bomb threat. "We've done well at their place, and they've won here," Billups said. "We've got to change that the first two games here. We have to protect our home court. We feel good about anywhere we play on the road. Obviously, we've had some great success in their building, but right now we have to worry about our building."

Said Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace: "I'm looking forward to going there and having them boo us."

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Detroit won at Indy on Christmas Day, 98-93, and returned to Conseco on Jan. 27 and beat the Pacers, 88-76.

"I hope home court means a lot," Brown said. "We haven't played them in awhile. They have (Jamaal) Tinsley and Jermaine (O'Neal) back. They're as close to being whole without Ron (Artest) as they have been. The biggest thing is we have to play our best basketball. I don't talk much about home and away. A lot of series, the home-court hasn't meant very much. We're kind of similar as far as what we run and how we play."

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