Bird urges Pacers fans to remain patient

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Bird urges Pacers fans to remain patient

By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Pacers president Larry Bird is urging fans to
remain patient through the team’s struggles.

Indiana enters the All-Star break with an 18-34 record, well out
of the playoff race after missing the postseason for the past
three seasons. Last month, some players were openly wondering if
their “weak-minded” defense could be righted and attendance woes
have been a problem now for years, along with assorted
off-the-court issues.

Yet Bird says the rebuilding phase that began when the Pacers
traded Ron Artest in 2006 is on target, and will move into high
gear after next season when the team gets salary cap space.

“We knew that we had to clean it out and rebuild it, and we knew
we were going to go through some tough times,” Bird told The
Associated Press this week. “Nobody likes to lose, and everybody
wants to be a part of a winner. We think we’re on the right
track to get there.”

Bird also took the pressure off coach Jim O’Brien, who is in his
third year after back-to-back 36-46 seasons. O’Brien signed a
one-year extension last September to coach through the end of
next season, and Bird said he is in no danger of being replaced.

“The one thing Jimmy bought into when he came here was that we
were going to rebuild, and we were going to struggle at times,”
Bird said. “I always say the losses are on me because I want him
to work these guys hard, develop the young guys we have and keep
moving forward with what we have.”

The Pacers have suffered through a series of injuries. Top
scorer Danny Granger missed a month with a heel injury, center
Jeff Foster is out for the season with a back injury,
guard/forward Mike Dunleavy missed several weeks while
recovering from knee surgery and rookie forward Tyler Hansbrough
has missed the past month with an inner ear infection.

Healthy or not, Bird expected rough times.

“Even if we were healthy all year, I thought we could win 36 to
41 games with this team,” he said. “In a rebuilding phase, which
I think we’re on track with, we’ll just have to go forward with
it.”

Bird, whose resume includes three NBA titles and three MVP
awards with the Boston Celtics, said the Pacers still could play
better.

“The one thing about this team is that we stand too much and we
settle way too much for the outside shot,” he said. “If we get
to the hole and put the pressure on the defense, we’re a lot
better. When we stand and just take outside shots, we have a
tendency to struggle.”

Granger, an All Star last season, hasn’t been quite as good this
season. He’s still averaging 22.4 points per game, but that’s
down more than three points from last season. He’s also shooting
four percent lower from the field.

Forward Troy Murphy has remained steady, despite trade rumors.
He averages 14 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

Part of the rebuilding process has led the Pacers to play
younger players. O’Brien sat point guard T.J. Ford for 18 games
while getting rookie A.J. Price some additional minutes.

“T.J. knows that I respect his game, and he knows how much I
like him,” Bird said. “It’s unfortunate that they’re in that
situation, but at that time, we wanted to see if A.J. could
play, and we know he can.”

A bright spot has been second-year center Roy Hibbert. The
7-foot-2 Georgetown product has become a fan favorite with
flashes of dominance. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 5.9
rebounds per game, but that comes with 3.6 fouls every 24
minutes. He also sometimes struggles against quicker post
players.

“With Roy, he’s made great strides,” Bird said. “He’ll continue
to get better because of his work ethic. He’ll struggle at
times, but I think in the long run, he’ll be a very valuable
player for us.”

Second-year guard Brandon Rush has been inconsistent, but has
shown potential. He’s averaging 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Hopes were high after he averaged 18.3 points and shot 55
percent from the field in the final 10 games last season.

Eventually, Bird said, the young core players will gain
experience playing as a unit under O’Brien. Until then, he said,
wins might not come as often as fans would like.

“Jimmy’s done an excellent job of doing the things I want him to
do,” Bird said. “It won’t show in wins and losses, but it will
show in the long run.”

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