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Artest helps Indiana pull away from Nets

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Pardon the Indiana Pacers for not getting
all warm and fuzzy about clinching homecourt advantage throughout
the NBA playoffs.

For a team that has been eliminated in the first round each of
the past three seasons, there's a lot more work to be done.

Ron Artest had 24 points and four steals to help the Pacers make
sure the playoffs will go through Indiana with a 90-80 win over the
short-handed New Jersey Nets on Friday night.

The victory assured the Pacers (59-21) of having the best record
in the league and also set their NBA franchise record for wins in a
season. The Pacers can eclipse their overall record, set in the
ABA, with a victory Monday night in Philadelphia.

"We're very proud of what this team has accomplished to this
point," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "I say 'to this point'
because our season's going to boil down to what happens in the
first round of the playoffs and beyond."

That's all the Pacers talked about after the win over the Nets,
and that focus is one of the biggest reasons for the team's
success.

"We just take it one game at a time," Reggie Miller said. "We
don't get too high and we don't get too low. We just take care of
business."

They certainly did that in the second half against New Jersey.

New Jersey was playing without Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, who
are both nursing left knee injuries. With the Atlantic Division and
No. 2 seed in the East already sewn up, Nets coach Lawrence Frank
had the luxury of sitting his two All-Stars for the second game of
a back-to-back set.

"Being short-handed is not an excuse," Rodney Rogers said.
"You have to play with what you have. Even with that, we were
still in the game and had a chance of winning."

The Nets used a 10-0 run to take a 54-53 lead with just under
six minutes to go in the third.

Indiana responded with a 15-5 run, but still couldn't put New
Jersey away until midway through the fourth.

Leading by just three points with under 10 minutes to play, the
Pacers went on a 12-2 run to seal the win and improve to an
NBA-best 33-7 at home.

Jermaine O'Neal, who scored all 20 of his points in the second
half, slammed home an alley-oop dunk and Reggie Miller converted a
fast-break layup for an 81-68 lead with 6:45 to play.

"It's OK," O'Neal said of homecourt advantage. "But we've
still got some winning to do. We have a mission and that is to
continue playing for the next few weeks."

Rogers, who started for Martin, led New Jersey with 15 points,
but the Nets were overwhelmed by Indiana's defense in the second
half.

Al Harrington added 20 points and seven rebounds for the Pacers,
who scored 25 points off 19 New Jersey turnovers. The Nets managed
just four points off seven Indiana turnovers.

"They get their hands on a lot of balls and it's hard to defend
against," Frank said.

Indiana took a 49-40 lead at halftime despite playing without
O'Neal for most of the half. The team's leading scorer and
rebounder was just 0-for-2 and had to sit after picking up his
third foul with 7:18 to go in the second.

"The first half was frustrating. They were junking it up a
little bit," Carlisle said. "I thought in the second half we
played as a disciplined a half as we have all year."

Even with O'Neal ineffective, the Pacers still had more than
enough to outlast the Nets.

"It's great to secure homecourt for the entire playoffs,"
Carlisle said. "We hope to get to a point to use it against a
Western Conference team. That would be great."

Game notes
The Pacers activated guard/forward Jonathan Bender from the
injured list after missing 11 straight games with a strained right
shoulder. ... Pacers mascots Boomer and Bowser wore arm bands to
pay tribute to the San Antonio Coyote, who is recovering from a
stroke suffered earlier in the season. ... The Pacers were
19-for-20 from the free-throw line. ... Frank said Kidd and Martin
will probably play against Philadelphia on Sunday.

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