by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, April 21, 2003 -
The chant began, as much as an exhortation as a tribute: "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" With the outcome of a playoff game still in the balance, Reggie Miller lifted, lofted and dropped in a 3-pointer. His arms raised in that familiar pose, albeit as much in relief as celebration - he had missed his first six tries - Miller turned to the roaring crowd and said, "Thank you."
And just like that, order was restored to the Pacers' postseason.
Miller didn't have a particularly good game - 18 points on 4-of-13 shooting - but he was there every time the Pacers needed a lift. As a result, they were able to not only survive Game 2, but throw a respectable counterpunch with an 89-77 victory to bring the best-of-seven series even at 1-1.
"When they started chanting, if it wasn't for them, I probably would've never made a shot," Miller said. "They were the ones that lifted that ball."
The Celtics still hold homecourt advantage going back to Boston for Game 3 on Thursday, and the Pacers haven't won in Fleet Center for two seasons. And it would be foolishly optimistic to expect Paul Pierce (5-of-18 for the game, 13-of-42 for the series) to continue to shoot like Jamaal Tinsley and Tinsley (10-of-14 overall, 7-of-10 from the arc) to continue to shoot like Pierce.
Still, there was the sense the Pacers regained their balance, and Miller was, as usual, the crutch. As the fans gave a little extra life to his shot, so did he lift his team.
In the third quarter, the Celtics cut a lead that had been as large as 18 in the first half (26-8) to a single point, 59-58, on a bucket by Tony Battie. But Miller, running back after a made basket, blew by a flat-footed Pierce, drew a foul and banked in the one-hander for a three-point play that ignited an 11-3 run.
And then came the fourth quarter, when he helped the Pacers do what they couldn't in the opener, when they blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter - finish the game. His 3-pointer with 3:06 remaining made it 86-74, and his ball-fake and bounce pass to Austin Croshere for a dunk made it 88-76 with 1:22 left, and there would be no more threats.
"Reggie always has been a guy who understands the rhythm of the game, the momentum of the game," said coach Isiah Thomas, "and he's always been able to provide us with a shot in the arm whenever we need it."
Not that Miller acted alone. This was a game that went according to script. Jermaine O'Neal had the first 20-20 game in franchise playoff history (23 points, 20 rebounds). Tinsley continued to run the point guard position with authority, finishing with 15 points, seven assists and a single turnover. Ron Artest avoided foul trouble and was thus able to harass Pierce to the very end. And Austin Croshere provided an eight-rebound lift off the bench.
"It's a chess match," said O'Neal. "Whichever team prepares the best is going to win. We want to do what they did - go into Boston and get Game 3.
"We're not celebrating yet - not at all."
Coach Isiah Thomas made adjustments to the defensive matchups and scheme that put Boston off-balance, assigning Reggie Miller to guard Antoine Walker on the perimeter. When Walker backed down into the post - a surprising rarity - plenty of help was quick to arrive. To deter Pierce's forays inside, Thomas sent O'Neal into the lane to cut off driving angles. That, coupled with Artest's game-long presence, turned Pierce into a jump-shooter, which is decidedly not his strength.
Pierce and Walker, who combined for 62 points in the opener, were limited to 33 in Game 2. Though Walter McCarty had 16 points and Tony Delk 12, neither was enough of a threat to defeat the Pacers' defensive strategy.
"Antoine and Paul are such good players, you want to zone 'em up and send 'em one way," said O'Neal. "Collectively, the defense stepped up and finished the game. If we had finished the game the other night we'd be up 2-0."
But they didn't, and thus remain in something of a hole. But it isn't nearly as deep, or dark, as it was Saturday night. And there is this little morsel: Miller historically has unleashed his best playoff performances on the road.
All isn't right with their world yet, but at least it does seem to be revolving on the proper axis once more.