Conference Finals History
Memorable Moments for Pacers
By Conrad Brunner | May 20, 2004
This may come as a surprise to many fans from the younger generation, but the Pacers didn’t come into existence in 1994. It just seems that way.
That marked the first season the team made its mark on the NBA Playoffs, winning its first series (against Orlando) and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Thus began a remarkable, memorable string of appearances in what amounts to the NBA’s final four.
When the 2004 conference finals open on Saturday night in Conseco Fieldhouse, it will mark the Pacers’ sixth trip to this elite, albeit penultimate, level. Odds are there will be at least one electrifying moment that serves as the lightning rod for the series.
That is, after all, how these things have tended to work out.
1994: Rivalry, and a Legend, are Born
With Michael Jordan retired (the first time), the New York Knicks assumed a dominant role in the East, winning 57 games under Coach Pat Riley. With Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley, the Knicks also offered plenty of villains for opposing fans. The Pacers, on the other hand, were the upstart team in the East playoff bracket. After setting what was then a franchise record with 47 wins in Larry Brown’s first season on the bench, they swept Orlando, then stunned top-seeded Atlanta in the second round.
That set up the first of many playoff meetings with the Knicks. New York won the first two games in Madison Square Garden as Ewing averaged 30.0 points. But the Pacers blew out the Knicks in Game 3 in Market Square Arena, 88-68, holding Ewing to a single point on 0-of-10 shooting. Reggie Miller, quiet until then, broke loose for 31 points in Game 4 as the Pacers tied it with an 83-77 victory.
Then came Game 5, which proved to be the birth of Miller’s postseason legend. The Knicks led 70-58 entering the fourth quarter, but Miller took complete control. He scored 25 points in the fourth quarter. He had 19 points, including five 3-pointers, in a 23-3 run that pushed the Pacers to a 93-86 victory and, suddenly, they were within one game of the NBA Finals – a heretofore distant, mystical land.
But the Pacers missed their chance to close out the series at home, losing 98-91 – their only playoff loss in MSA that year -- as Starks scored 26 points while Miller struggled (8 of 21 overall, 2 of 7 from the arc). The Knicks then won a bitter Game 7, 94-90, as Ewing went for 24 points and 22 rebounds. Ewing’s final rebound, of a Starks miss, turned into a putback that gave the Knicks a 91-90 lead with 26 seconds left. After Miller missed a 3-pointer, he was called for a questionable flagrant foul against Starks, and the Knicks put it away.
1995: A New Mountain to Climb
Buoyed by their breakthrough performance the year before, the Pacers went on to their best regular season to that point, winning 52 games and their first Central Division title. With Mark Jackson at the point and Rik Smits emerging into a dominant scorer, the Pacers swept Atlanta in the first round, then knocked off the Knicks in a thrilling seven-game series in the conference semifinals. In Game 1, Miller scored eight points in the final 8.9 seconds to wipe out a six-point deficit and deliver a stunning 107-105 victory in Madison Square Garden. It’s entirely possible that series took too much out of the Pacers, who faced a formidable Orlando team in the conference finals. With dominant young stars Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, the Magic won 57 games and rose to the top of the East during the regular season.
Orlando took full advantage of the circumstances to win the first two games at home, though both were close. The Pacers returned to MSA and won Game 3. Then came a Game 4, which ranks among the greatest finishes in NBA playoff history. The Pacers led 89-88 before Brian Shaw hit a 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds left. Miller responded with a 3-pointer to put Indiana ahead 92-90, but Hardaway tossed in an off-balance 3-pointer with Haywoode Workman’s hand in his face to give Orlando a 93-92 lead with 1.3 seconds remaining. After a timeout to set up one final play, Miller couldn’t get open, but inbounds passer Derrick McKey found Smits at the free throw line. The 7-4 center put a ball-fake on Orlando’s Tree Rollins and swished the game-winning jumper at the buzzer. The play, dubbed “the Memorial Day Miracle,” marked the fourth lead change in the final 13.3 seconds.
Orlando won the fifth consecutive close game of the series in Game 5, 108-106, as O’Neal went for 35 points and 13 rebounds. At that point, no more than five points had separated the teams in any of the games. But Miller exploded for 36 points in Game 6 and the Pacers tied the series with a 123-96 blowout. After the game, Orlando’s players huddled at midcourt for a brief meeting that appeared to be an act of desperation but turned out to be just what was needed. The Magic responded with a 105-81 rout in Game 7, blowing open the game in the third quarter, to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
1998: Challenging a Dynasty
In what turned out to be his final season in Chicago, and thus the end of the Bulls’ dynasty, Michael Jordan saw the gap narrowing between his team and the competition. The Bulls won 62 games but finished just four games ahead of the Pacers, who set a then-franchise record with 58 wins in Larry Bird’s first season as head coach. Indiana’s growth was evident in a 4-1 spanking of the Knicks in the second round. That brought a meeting with the two-time defending champions.
After dropping two close games in Chicago, the Pacers again made Memorial Day Weekend memorable with two thrilling wins in front of a frenzied home crowd at Market Square Arena. Miller scored 13 of his 28 points in the final 4 1/2 minutes of a 107-105 victory in Game 3, despite a sprained ankle. But it was in Game 4 that he would leave an indelible mark. With the Bulls leading 94-93, Miller broke free of Jordan, received an inbounds pass beyond the 3-point line and hit the game-winner with seven-tenths of a second to play.
The home team held serve in the next two games, setting up Game 7. In a classic performance by both teams, the Pacers held a 72-69 lead with less than 9 minutes to play. The Bulls clamped down defensively, dominated the boards and it was Scottie Pippen, not Jordan, who hit the big shots down the stretch as the Bulls prevailed, 88-83. Chicago went on to win its sixth title in eight years.
1999: Locked Out by a Familiar Foe
After a regular season shortened to 50 games by a lockout, the Pacers (33-17) tied for the best record in the East, and then built momentum by sweeping Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Returning to the conference finals for the fourth time in six years, they ran into their old nemesis, the Knicks. New York became just the second No. 8 seed to upset a top seed by knocking off Miami in the first round, then swept Atlanta in the second round.
That set up another rematch. The Knicks stunned the Pacers at home in Game 1, 93-90. But Indiana bounced back to win Game two 88-86 and appeared poised to regain homecourt advantage, and needed momentum, in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden. But perhaps the most infamous play in the Pacers’ NBA playoff history proved their undoing. Larry Johnson’s controversial four-point play, the result of a foul against Antonio Davis and a generous continuation that enabled the Knicks forward to make a 3-pointer, sent the Knicks to a 92-91 win.
Though the Pacers beat the Knicks on their home floor soundly in Game 4 (90-78), New York won what turned out to be the final playoff game in Market Square Arena, 101-94 in Game 5, then closed out the series with a 90-82 victory in Madison Square Garden as Allan Houston upstaged Miller. Houston scored 32 points while Miller managed just eight points on 3 of 18 shooting.
2000: Breaking Through to the Next Level
This playoff run didn’t exactly start with a bang. The top-seeded Pacers needed an offensive rebound by Dale Davis that led to a 3-pointer from Travis Best to squeak past Milwaukee in five games in the first round, then struggled through a six-game series against Philadelphia. That brought about another pairing with the Knicks. It was the fifth time in six years the teams had met in the playoffs, and the third time in the conference finals.
This time, there would be no unwelcome surprises. The teams held serve through five games, with the Pacers taking a 3-2 lead into Madison Square Garden for Game 6. Miller then played the role of recurring nightmare to the Knicks’ faithful, erupting for 34 points as the Pacers broke open a tight game in the fourth quarter to win, 93-80.
Advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, the Pacers pushed the Lakers to six games before falling.
2004: Another Near Miss
An opening-round sweep of overmatched Boston led to a severe test from the suddenly confident Miami Heat that the Pacers passed in six games, setting up the much-anticipated matchup between the Pacers and Coach Rick Carlisle's former team, the third-seeded Detroit Pistons, runner-ups to the Pacers for the Central Division title.
There was no shortage of subplots for the series, which also featured former Pacers coach Larry Brown on the Pistons bench and Pistons guard Rip Hamilton, who had spent a career molding his game around his idol, Reggie Miller. But despite all the extraneous storylines, the series boiled down to two tough, physical, defensive-minded teams trading body blows for six games.
Indiana got a 78-74 victory go go up 1-0, eliciting a guarantee of a Game 2 victory from Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons backed up Wallace's promise with a 72-67 win, which Tayshaun Prince helped preseve with an incredible block of what would have been a game-tying breakaway layup from Miller in the waning seconds. Trailing in the series 2-1, the Pacers won Game 4 in Detroit convincingly, 83-68. Carlisle inserted Austin Croshere into the lineup at center in an effort to spread the Pistons' defense. Croshere responded with 14 points of 5 of 8 shooting.
The Pistons returned the favor with an 83-65 drumming back at Conseco Fieldhouse in Game 5. Hamilton scored 33 points and Wallace 22 for Detroit. Jermaine O'Neal, slowed by a knee injury, managed only 13 points and Croshere, the star of Game 4, was 0-for-7 from the floor, finishing with two points. The Pistons finished off the series with a 69-65 victory in Game 6 despite 20 points and 10 rebounds from O'Neal. Detroit went on to upset the Lakers for the NBA Championship.