His call to bring on the New York Knicks as the Eastern Conference finals were about to begin was not so much throwing down the gauntlet as a statement that he wanted to play the best the NBA had to offer on this side of the country. But it brought on a problem nonetheless: Getting them.
In the first three games, the Knicks neutralized Reggie Miller, holding him to an average of 17 points, 42.9% shooting from the field and 25% on three-pointers. He appeared to be loitering in the Indiana Pacers’ offense. Then, without warning, came the flip side: The Knicks got Miller.
New York got an earful as he stopped playing the good citizen and returned to running his mouth, and got an eyeful as he scored 13 of the Pacers’ final 16 points Monday during an 83-77 victory at Market Square Arena that tied the series at two games each.
The Pacers head back to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 Wednesday, before returning home for Game 6 Friday, knowing they have found a new weapon. It’s the old one, their leading scorer from the regular season who finished third in the league in three-point shooting, who averaged 22 points in the first two rounds against Orlando and Atlanta.
There had been no shortage of those quick to point out the differences, mostly family and friends. He wasn’t being as aggressive was the main thing, a notion that had to with attitude as much as play.
So he cranked up the knob on both, becoming his old taunting self and looking more for his shots, and scored 31 points to leave the Knicks and their former 2-0 series lead in his wake.
The added bit of motivation came from Coach Larry Brown, who after the Pacers had blown a 13-point third-quarter lead and trailed in the fourth, urged Miller to grab the spotlight. “This is what you relish,” Brown told Miller.
Miller curled around a pick and scored from the right side to tie the score at 70 with 5:20 left. After Rik Smits gave the Pacers the lead, Miller made a jumper over Greg Anthony.
Then Miller made six free throws as he worked over Derek Harper, who could only foul him three possessions in a row. Miller punctuated the run by taunting him up and down the court.
All the while, Miller milked the moment. He kept going to the Pacer bench at the other end, before stepping to the line, to dust his hands with powder. Between some of the free throws, he would walk to the jump-ball circle at midcourt, then return to make another. It was his stage.
“When I’m quiet and just going through the motions, I’m just not the same,” he said. “When I involve my teammates and the fans and the opponents and the opponents’ fans, I’m a little freer.”
The last of the free throws put the Pacers ahead, 80-72, with 2:20 remaining, but they were not in the clear yet even as the Knick offense again played dead. A three-pointer by John Starks made it a five-point game, and Indiana followed that with a miss by Miller and a 24-second violation.
New York was in position to steal a victory and play for the clincher at home.
That opportunity vanished in a pile of 26 turnovers, far too many for any team in the playoffs but especially one that is en route to shooting 37.7%. The Knicks got the ball to Patrick Ewing, who had redeemed himself from his one-point, zero-for-10 showing Saturday by getting 25 points and 13 rebounds, but Ewing’s pass to Harper from the post sailed into the backcourt for a violation.
They got another chance when Byron Scott’s entry pass for the Pacers went through the hands of Derrick McKey, a turnover that became even bigger when Starks drove in for a layup and an 80-77 score with 30.1 seconds left. McKey’s chance for the same redemption that had come to Ewing and Miller disappeared when he missed two free throws as the Knicks fouled quickly to stop the clock with 28.4 to go.
If the Knicks couldn’t believe their luck, no one could believe what happened next.
New York called a timeout, tried to get a pass inside to Ewing, only to find every angle sealed off by the Pacers. Ewing got the ball near the three-point line beyond the top of the key and passed it to Hubert Davis, who glanced away as he stood along the sideline in front of a Pacer bench that was riding him hard.
“That’s all you need to make a mistake,” Indiana guard Haywoode Workman said.
It was a big mistake--the ball went off Davis’ hands and out of bounds with 6.8 seconds left. The Pacers closed the game with free throws and survived.
Reggie Miller had arrived, after all.