ORLANDO, Fla. – Ron Artest behaved perfectly in his return to the NBA on Wednesday night. He played pretty well, too.

Artest had 16 points, three rebounds and five assists, and the Indiana Pacers began life without Reggie Miller with a 90-78 victory over the Orlando Magic.

Artest started 1-of-7 from the field, but he shook off the rust in the second half and led the Pacers to victory with several big plays and strong defense. He finished 4-of-14 from the floor and 6-of-9 from the free throw line.

He converted a three-point play and made two 3-pointers – all in a 2-minute span late in the third quarter – that helped Indiana build an 11-point lead.

The Pacers held on from there and didn’t need any clutch shots from Miller, the face of the franchise who retired in May after 18 seasons.

Artest’s return was a much bigger story line.

All eyes were on the forward from the moment he entered TD WaterHouse Centre. He was loudly booed during pregame introductions and again every time his name was called. But he showed no reaction – on the bench or on the court.

His play said plenty, though.

He played sound defense – his trademark – and was effective on the break and in half-court sets. Maybe more importantly, he was well behaved.

No brawls. No hard fouls. Not even a verbal jab.

Artest will be forever linked to the Nov. 19, 2004, brawl between the Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.

Artest reacted violently when a fan hit him in the face with a drink, setting off the worst brawl in U.S. sports history. Artest ran into the stands and pushed the fan he thought threw the cup. He also punched a fan who came onto the court.

Teammates joined in the melee, but Artest got most of the blame. He was suspended for the rest of the season – 73 games, plus the playoffs – the harshest punishment ever for a fight.

The Pacers have grown tired of talking about the fight. They want to focus on the season, one in which they are one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference.

They played like it against the Magic, spoiling the return of coach Brian Hill.

Jermaine O’Neal scored 19 points, Austin Croshere added 16 and the Pacers were 7-of-19 from behind the 3-point line.

The victory came without Grant Hill in the lineup for Orlando. The team’s second-leading scorer last season, Hill could miss up to six weeks after having surgery Monday for a sports hernia.

Steve Francis led the Magic with 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists – maybe playing as unselfishly as ever.

Notes: The Pacers played without centers Jeff Foster (Achilles’ tendon) Scot Pollard (strained calf). … The Magic lost an opener for the first time since 1999. … In a rare move, Francis grabbed a microphone just before tip-off and told the home crowd that the franchise was committed to winning and asked for their support. … The Little League World Series team from nearby Maitland, which included sons of former major leaguers Dante Bichette and Mike Stanley, was recognized between quarters and received autographed baseballs from Magic players.

AP-ES-11-02-05 2148EST


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