In mid-April, when the playoff matchups were still hazy and
Eastern Conference teams were jockeying for postseason position,
Indiana Pacers veteran Reggie Miller developed a habit of
scanning the standings for the Philadelphia 76ers. "That team,"
he'd say, "is the one that scares me."
His trepidation was understandable. Philadelphia was the
antithesis of Indiana: young, brash, athletic, impatient. The
76ers' journey was just beginning, while the Pacers, whose
starters are an average of 33 years old, were aching to cross
the finish line before their time had passed. Indiana's hopes
resided in a deep roster of reliable contributors, while the
Sixers lived--and died--by the mercurial talents of Allen
Iverson, a 23-year-old guard who would lead the NBA in scoring
and give fits to defensive gurus bent on stopping him.
Miller, who has nailed as many heart-stopping postseason
game-winners as anyone in league history, identified with the
fearless Iverson. So when the teams' second-round date was set,
he warned his fellow Pacers, "We're in for the fight of our
Who would have guessed that the bout would be so brief? Indiana
delivered the KO in four swift punches, sweeping Philly by
daring Iverson to single-handedly beat them. Iverson was
alternately exquisite (35 points in Game 1 on 13 of 26 shooting)
and excessive (32 points in Game 3 on 13 of 33 shooting), but he
was always exciting. When Indy "exorcised the demon," as Miller
put it, with an 89-86 win in Game 4 on Sunday in Philadelphia,
the Pacers resembled a band of weary prizefighters. "I know it
was only four games," said Miller, "but it felt more like six or
The 76ers may have been overmatched in experience and poise, but
they were well stocked with perseverance. No Indiana lead was
too big as long as Iverson and backcourt partner Eric Snow were
on the floor, stalking the Pacers with bottomless energy and
verve. No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, but as
Iverson said before Game 4, "We might as well be the first."
The Sixers weren't, because there's a steely single-mindedness
to Indiana that won't tolerate letdowns. The Pacers have
advanced to the conference finals for the fourth time in six
years, and they're the only unbeaten team in the playoffs.
Indiana has restaked its claim to being a postseason juggernaut
by regaining its focus and its defensive resolve, a stunning
reversal from a month ago, when the Pacers were dragged down by
squabbles over playing time and haunted by an inability to close
out opponents. Five times in an 11-game stretch they were on the
wrong end of a one-point final score. Watching those games slip
away, says forward Antonio Davis, "made you wonder what was
wrong with us."
With four games left in the regular season, Indiana coach Larry
Bird made a change. He scrapped his rotation, which had put the
defensive trio of Davis, point guard Travis Best and forward
Jalen Rose on the floor in the fourth quarter, with starters
Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin watching from the
bench. Once Bird determined that he needed the offensive
firepower of his first unit during crunch time, the Pacers
blossomed again. Indiana won its final four games of the regular
season, two of them in overtime. "Something needed to be done,"
Antonio Davis says. "We weren't getting the best out of our
guys. After the change we were back to our old selves."
The Pacers' surge coincided with the return of forward Derrick
McKey, who had been sidelined for most of the season with
tendinitis in his right knee. His versatility on defense enabled
Indiana to put the clamps on big scorers like the Milwaukee
Bucks' Glenn Robinson, whom McKey quieted in the Pacers'
first-round sweep. Against Philly the task of guarding Iverson
fell to Jackson, who gave up a step and a half in quickness but
compensated with guile. He made Iverson work for his points by
bumping him, denying him the ball and forcing him out to
three-point range. At the other end of the floor, Miller wore
Iverson down by running him through a maze of screens.
The bump-and-grind took its toll. Iverson, who averaged 45.7
minutes and sank only 5 of 25 threes in the series, came up
short on many of his jumpers in Game 3, a telltale sign of
fatigue. But then you'd be tired too if you hoisted up 33 shots
in one night, a statistic that was viewed by Indiana with
curiosity. "You almost want to run out there and tell him, 'Get
the other guys involved, then take the shot when it counts,'"
said Pacers center Rik Smits.
Iverson's domination of the ball drew immediate comparisons with
a young Michael Jordan, who scored 63 points in a losing effort
against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. "What people
forget," former Celtic Bird said wryly, "is that we won that
series 3-0. One guy can't beat a team. Michael couldn't do it.
Iverson, who admitted he tried to do too much in Game 3, vowed
to avoid repeating that mistake in Game 4. Yet his early efforts
to involve his teammates were neutralized by the dogged defense
of Indiana, which went up 17 in the first half. When the Pacers
still held a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter, the
series, it seemed, was over. The Sixers, however, wouldn't go
down without one last, dramatic gasp. Philly put together a 19-4
run, during which Indiana went 9:58 without a field goal,
missing 13 straight jumpers. The 76ers scratched their way back
with a number of timely hoops from Iverson and a couple of
hustle buckets from center Matt Geiger, who, after playing 27
minutes in Game 3 without getting a rebound, redeemed himself
with 23 points and 13 rebounds on Sunday.
Philadelphia fans, delirious with hope, roared their approval as
Geiger's bank shot put the 76ers ahead 83-79 with 3:17 left.
Snow, playing the first significant postseason minutes of his
career, had two opportunities to boost Philadelphia's lead to
six. Both times, in rushing to feed Geiger in the post, he threw
it away. Those were the 76ers' only turnovers of the half, and
they allowed the Pacers to steal back the game.
On the possession following Snow's second miscue, Jackson
penetrated and passed back to Mullin, who was waiting behind the
three-point arc. In one motion he caught the ball and drilled a
trey. It was Indiana's classic kick-and-draw play, the same one
the Pacers had practiced every day in their full-team workouts
during the lockout. "When Chris hit that three," said Miller, "I
knew we had won."
Indiana was still down 83-82, but then it was Miller's turn to
show the kids how it's done. With 1:31 to go, he coaxed in a
running, leaning, one-handed runner over the outstretched arms
of Snow: 84-83, Pacers. Indiana didn't lose the lead again.
The playoff stage still belongs to Miller, who undoubtedly made
a mental note before the series that nearly every expert was
giving Iverson the edge in their matchup. Not only did Miller
hit the game-winner that clinched the series, but he also
produced 21.7 points a game on 48.3% shooting (40.0% on threes).
Not bad for a player who shot a career-low 43.8% in averaging
18.4 points during the regular season. "It's an honor to watch
Reggie perform, night in and night out," says Jackson. "He has
never gotten the credit he deserves. Not just in this series,
and not just in this season. Some day people will look back and
say, 'Man, that guy was special.'"
Whether history will say the same about this Indiana team
remains to be seen. Bird was shocked by his troops' solid
rebounding against Philly throughout the series and their 19-3
edge in transition points in Game 3. Mullin believes Indiana's
solidarity can be traced back to those workouts during the
lockout, even though they didn't pay immediate dividends. "When
we didn't live up to expectations in the regular season, people
said all that work was a waste of time," says Mullin. "That's
wrong. There's a reason we know exactly where everybody is going
to cut and where exactly to give a guy the ball. When you play
together as much as we have, it becomes second nature."
The Sixers couldn't help but notice. Now let's see if they'll
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS 86'D 76Er Bumping, grinding and occasional triple-teaming from the likes of Jackson, Smits (45) and Mullin helped subdue Iverson.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS ELEGANT DISH Best has seen fewer minutes in Bird's new rotation, but he skillfully bypassed Tyrone Hill in Game 4.