Indiana Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller has probably hit more
clutch postseason shots than any other active player, yet he
remains on the periphery of superstardom, an outside shooter, if
you will, looking in. A case could be made that he's a
first-ballot Hall of Famer: In his 13 seasons he has sunk more
three-point shots than any other NBA player in history and,
almost as important, has made Madison Square Garden courtside
irritant Spike Lee look like a fool on more than one occasion.
But a credible argument (based on Miller's questionable shot
selection, his liabilities as a defender and zero championship
rings) could be made for his exclusion. The cartoonish
appearance, the trash-talking, the arsenal of improbable
long-distance leaners, floaters and fadeaways--they've all
conspired to make Miller more sideshow than main event, a status
that probably won't change until Indiana makes its first
appearance in the NBA Finals. "So, maybe," Miller said last week,
"this is the season all that changes."
Maybe it is. While the Pacers are among the league's oldies but
goodies, they did have enough firepower in the first round to
knock off the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with, to use Miller's
eye-rolling description, "young legs." Other evidence, however,
suggests that Indiana will again stumble in the Eastern
Conference finals, as it has the past two seasons. If, that is,
the Pacers make it that far. After taking three straight from the
Philadelphia 76ers in their conference semifinal, Indiana dropped
Games 4 and 5, the latter a 107-86 humbling at home on Monday
night in which the Sixers scored the first 15 points. The Pacers'
play on the boards would need improvement to be considered
pathetic--Philadelphia outrebounded them in all five games--and a
bona fide 10-deep roster, which can be a blessing, has sometimes
presented dizzying playing-time headaches for coach Larry Bird.
Then there is the matter of Miller's composure--or the lack
thereof. The Pacers' star sat out Monday night's game after
receiving a one-game suspension for shoving Sixers center Matt
Geiger in last Saturday's Game 4 at First Union Center. A day
earlier Miller had walked along the streets of Philadelphia
dressed in a plaid shirt, pressed jeans, a floppy hat and
sunglasses, looking so sweet and unassuming that even a 76ers fan
might have thought about throwing an arm around his slender
shoulders and saying howdy. That would have been fine with
Miller, who's about as approachable as a big-name athlete can be.
Just before the tip-off on Saturday, though, the Sixers' fans
were baiting Miller by chanting his other surname, which is
Sucks. His M.O. is to encourage the catcallers, egg them on a
little by cocking his hand to his ear or strutting more
peacockishly, then to bury a dagger-in-the-heart three-pointer.
Late in Game 4, however, it was Miller who lost his cool.
After being slammed to the floor by the 7'1", 248-pound Geiger in
the third quarter, the second such flagrant foul he had committed
against Miller that afternoon, Miller went after the bald
muscleman, thereby earning a technical foul, an ejection, a
$5,000 fine and the suspension. (Geiger was ejected, fined
$20,000 and suspended for two games, and the Sixers were fined
$50,000.) Miller's teammates offered the predictable defense of
him in public, but privately some were incensed that he had
gotten tossed for a shove to the face of a player who, as Sam
Perkins put it, "isn't worth it."
Until that mistimed Geiger counter, Miller's comportment and
performance in the playoffs had been beyond reproach. The Pacers
do have "young legs"--swingman Jalen Rose and point guard Travis
Best, both 27, are key players--but as the postseason has worn on,
more and more weight has been carried by the 34-year-old Miller.
He laid 34 and 41 points on the Bucks in crucial Games 3 and 5 of
the first-round series, then opened with 40 in Game 1 against the
Sixers. That total was matched by Rose, which demonstrated that
there are enough shots to keep both Mr. Past and Mr. Future
happy. Ah, but who is Mr. Present? "It's playoff time," says
Bird. "Reggie's the man, and he knows he's the man."
In the regular season there was a temptation to think that the
torch had been passed to Rose, given that he supplanted Miller,
after 10 straight years, as the team's leading scorer (18.2
points per game compared with Miller's 18.1) and that Reggie
really did Suck in last year's postseason. (He shot only 39.7%.)
But Miller's reemergence is more than Indiana's turning to a
proven veteran in tough times; it's the result of changes Miller
made in both his body and his game before the season. "It's all
coming together now," he says.
Granted, the changes are subtle. When he takes off his shirt, the
skin is still stretched so tight on his gangly 6'7" body that if
you plucked him with your finger, you'd swear he'd make a sound
like a harp. But he is six or seven pounds heavier than in recent
seasons, at around 192, and he started in November as high as
205. He built himself up through a rigorous, six-day-a-week
off-season program of plyometrics, which included a lot of
anaerobic work, such as jumping and lifting heavy weights with
few repetitions. He has continued lifting throughout the season.
(Perhaps that's why he went after Geiger.) It took Miller a while
to get used to the increased poundage, but he says he feels more
durable and less enervated than in previous Mays.
As far as his playing style goes, Miller appears at first blush
to be the same loopy launcher he's always been, flying pell-mell
off picks and throwing up off-balance shots that would draw snide
remarks at the Y. But he's not. In the past, Miller generally
needed screens and movement to squeeze off his shots, largely
because he wasn't strong enough to fight through the bumps and
hand checks. These days, owing to his added muscle and to a
league that has (supposedly) clamped down on clutching and
grabbing, Miller is backing his opponents down more and posting
up, and he's gotten better at creating his own shots. To pick up
some moves, he has spent many hours watching videotape of
creators such as Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. "Hey,
I'm not proud," says Miller. "If I can learn from the young guys,
I'll do it. That doesn't mean I'll come down with a killer
crossover like Iverson, but there are a few things I've learned."
To demonstrate, Miller jumps up and pretends to be dribbling a
ball. "Two dribbles, stutter step, head fake, shoot," he says.
"Dribble-dribble, crossover, step back, shoot. Dribble-dribble,
hesitate, don't pick up, crossover, go right, stop quick, go up,
shoot." The lesson goes on for a few minutes. The man is serious
"What makes Reggie special," says Indiana assistant coach Rick
Carlisle, "is this combination of things that goes on inside of
him. He's got the gunslinger's mentality, the I-can-make-anything
attitude, but he's also a man with a routine, a man with a
self-discipline that's totally directed toward getting him ready
Routine? Oh, man, don't get him started. For home games he has to
be the first player to arrive, which means getting to Conseco
Fieldhouse by 4:15 p.m. He gets dressed the same way every night:
compression shorts, then uniform shorts, then socks, then shoes,
then shooting T-shirt. The same ball boy, Donnie Strack, must
assist him. After 15 minutes of shooting, he gets stretched,
either out on the court or in the locker room, "depending on the
karma," he says. Then he must get stretched again, "on the
table." By this time it's about 5:45, and he sends Strack to get
him something to eat, maybe pasta or chicken, "but not too much,
because I like to be a little hungry yet have something in there
to burn off," Miller says. (The subject of how he undresses after
the game was not approached; there just wasn't time.)
"It's not exactly superstitiousness," says Miller. "It's more
that I like things around me to be a certain way. It's especially
important that I have people around me who are energetic and
positive. That's why I love this team. Nobody gets in fights in
bars. Knock on wood. Nobody smacks around women. Knock on wood.
No white guys are on one side of the room and black guys on the
other. And Mark and I, we're like the parents."
Point guard Mark Jackson is Miller's bosom buddy and the source
of much of his good karma. (Jackson was with Miller last month
when, before Game 3 in Milwaukee, Miller purchased his Superman
T-shirt at a mall, wore it during warmups, then toasted the Bucks
with 34 points.) They have their differences, particularly in
sporting debates--Miller, for example, chooses Joe Montana as his
quarterback and Rod Carew as his hitter, while Jackson goes with
Dan Marino and Tony Gwynn--but they are like brothers. "Like me,
Mark likes to come into the enemy's arena, talk a little trash,
shut people up in their own place," Miller says. "He's got guts.
He'll come at you. Yet with all that he's a God-fearing,
Jackson is also, like Miller, a man in the final year of his
contract, and the two have talked about presenting themselves as
a Koufax-and-Drysdale package deal to team president Donnie
Walsh, who earlier in the season tabled the idea of re-upping
Miller early. Walsh says he doesn't do packages. "But of course I
want Reggie back," Walsh says. "Read nothing into the fact that I
didn't sign him earlier."
Walsh was less definitive about Miller's buddy: "We have a lot of
decisions to make, but what I'll say about Mark is that he can
really, really run a basketball team." (An artful dodge, that.)
The question about Jackson is whether he can remain a positive
influence in the locker room if Best continues to take minutes
Miller wants to be back home again in Indiana, and his value to
the team was never more evident than in the Monday night debacle.
"I'm proud of the fact that I've stayed in one place my whole
career, which is getting harder and harder to do," he says. "I'm
not going to take any kind of stand or anything. But all I can
say is, if Donnie Walsh and the Simons [owners Melvin and
Herbert] don't know the value of a guy like Mark--the veteran
leadership, the winning attitude--something's wrong."
Another factor that could disturb Miller's karma for next season
is the departure of Bird, who may return to the Pacers' front
office but definitely won't be on the bench. "You think you don't
have anything more to learn in this game, and along comes Larry
Bird," says Miller, shaking his head. "The game preparation, the
little things. Maybe you're up by a little bit, in the middle of
a run, and you're coming down and--boom--you pull up and take that
three to break their back. Larry did it. He wants me to do it.
And you know what? If you miss, he doesn't care. If you're going
to be a hero, you've got to take hero shots."
Bird's exit, Miller's and Jackson's contract status, the
ascendancy of Rose and Best--one gets the feeling that this is the
last season for Indiana, as currently constituted, to vie for a
championship. Miller won't say it, but he seems to realize it,
too. Though he says he has retired the Superman T-shirt ("You
can't take a chance of tarnishing Superman's name," he says),
he'll need to make a Man of Steel effort to get the Pacers past
the muscular Heat or Knicks, never mind what horrors from the
West would await them in the Finals. Miller, feeling the good
karma, says that's not a problem. "The flowers are in bloom, the
trees are green, spring is upon us and the playoffs are here," he
says. "That means it's Miller time."
Don't you just hate him? Don't you just love him?
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE LOOKING SUPER Beneath that now mothballed Superman shirt is a Miller physique better able to endure rugged play.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION After Geiger's flagrant foul in Game 4, Miller fired the sort of shot that's not his specialty.
Reggie Miller is in a class by himself, and he'd like to get out
of it. Of the 32 players who have scored at least 2,000 career
postseason points, Miller is the only one who has never reached
the Finals. What's more, through Sunday's games Miller ranked
fifth in postseason scoring average among players who have
appeared in a minimum of 25 playoff games but never played for
the title. --David Sabino
PLAYOFF PLAYOFF POINTS PER
GAMES POINTS PLAYOFF GAME
George Gervin 59 1,592 27.0
Dominique Wilkins 56 1,423 25.4
Bernard King 28 687 24.5
Alex English 68 1,661 24.4
Reggie Miller 87 2,018 23.2
"You're up a little, and you take that three to break their
back," Miller says. "Larry [Bird] did it, and he wants me to do
it. If you want to be a hero, you've got to take hero shots."