The rivalry between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons in the early 21st century was real, and it was heated. Starting the 2004–05 season, both teams were in the discussion as the NBA’s best. Detroit was the NBA champion; Indiana had finished the previous season with the league’s best record. Then the Malice at the Palace changed everything for the Pacers.
It should have been a routine early-season game at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004. Indiana was off to a 6–2 start. The defending champs were a bit slower out of the gate, entering the night at 4–3.
The Pacers opened a 16-point halftime lead. Because it’s the NBA, and every team does it, the Pistons made a run. With 7:16 remaining, Detroit closed the gap to 84–79. Nine straight points by Indiana ended the competitive phase of the game with less than three minutes left. It was at this stage in the game that things got weird.
The Indiana Pacers run as title contenders ended with the Malice at the Palace
The fortunes of the Indiana Pacers franchise turned at warp speed. Up 15 inside the final minute of the game, Ron Artest (later known as Metta World Peace and now as Metta Sandiford-Artest) committed a hard foul on Detroit’s Ben Wallace. While these weren’t the Bad Boys of Detroit Pistons lore, they were a tough, physical team. Wallace gave Artest a shove and continued after him. Benches emptied.
Artest went over to the scorer’s table. He already had a reputation as a hothead, and he wanted to get away from Wallace. As he laid on the table, a cup of beer arced down from the crowd. Artest reacted, ran into the crowd, and the melee known as the Malice at the Palace ensued.
Commissioner David Stern didn’t hold back on the penalties. Artest drew a suspension for the rest of the season, 73 regular-season games, and 13 playoff contests. Stephen Jackson got a 30-game ban. Jermaine O’Neal was initially hit with 25 games, but had it reduced to 15 on appeal. Besides the three main protagonists, Anthony Johnson was out five games and Reggie Miller for one.
Five players faced criminal penalties. Artest, Jackson, O’Neal, Johnson, and backup big man David Harrison received one year’s probation, a $250 fine, anger management therapy, and varying lengths of community service.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just a wrecked season in Indiana. The window slammed shut on that group’s title hopes.
A new documentary explores the consequences of the Malice at the Palace
In the wake of the Malice at the Palace, the Detroit Pistons finished second in the Eastern Conference at 54–28. The Indiana Pacers ended at 44-38 and were just 37–36 after the brawl. Indiana took the Boston Celtics seven games but lost in the first round. The Pistons couldn’t defend their title, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Jackson wistfully looked back on the brawl in the first of five episodes of the Netflix documentary series Untold: The Malice at the Palace. He’s sure it cost the Pacers everything.
“If the brawl wouldn’t of happened, we would have been champions, no question about it, no question. That’s the only thing I regret about the whole situation is not being able to do what we said we were going to do for Reggie.”Stephen Jackson
The 2004-05 season ended up being the last of Miller’s Hall of Fame career. That career ended without a ring. Jackson already had one from the Spurs in 2003. Artest had to wait but got his title with the Lakers in 2010. O’Neal never got close again.
Jackson’s lament makes sense on the surface. But would the Pacers have won it all?
With the win over the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers had the best record in the Eastern Conference at 7–2. But there was a lot of season left. Through nine games, Indiana had played well. But the sample sizes are small. A net rating of plus-1.7 doesn’t spell dynasty.
However, there were some players available around the trade deadline that the Pacers could have pursued. But since they weren’t within striking distance of the Detroit Pistons, those moves never got made.
One intriguing candidate was Baron Davis, who went from New Orleans to Golden State. If the Pacers had a weakness, it was at point guard. Jamaal Tinsley missed half the season, and Johnson was a journeyman.
Adding Davis would have given the Indiana Pacers a puncher’s chance. But would they have won? All we can do is speculate.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.