by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, April 28, 2002 - It was supposed to be different this year. It wouldn't be necessary for 36-year-old Reggie Miller to empty his tank in the first round by carrying his young teammates game after game. He would be able to pick his spots, lurk on the perimeter, then step in to hit the big shots when needed.
After all, Jermaine O'Neal was now an All-Star, the best big man in the Eastern Conference, the league's Most Improved Player - and no stranger to the playoffs. Brad Miller had been around long enough to know what the playoffs are all about. Austin Croshere and Kevin Ollie both had NBA Finals experience within the last two years. And Jonathan Bender and Ron Mercer were on hand to provide jump-shooting assistance when needed.
It hasn't worked out according to plan, however. The trend of last postseason is repeating, and that doesn't bode well for the Pacers, who trail top-seeded New Jersey 2-1 in a best-of-five first-round series. The Nets have the opportunity to advance in Game 4 on Tuesday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.
"They are very well-coached, very disciplined, led by a little warrior in Jason Kidd," Miller said. "They seem to do all the right things at the right times and you have to give them a lot of credit for that. We're out there battling with everything we have, with a lot of inexperience.
"They're the No. 1 seed in the East. They're the champs. As we all know in boxing, you have to knock out the champ. We're not doing anything to knock them out. We've got to play at a much higher level than they are and that's tough because they're very well-coached and very disciplined and Jason Kidd has been in a lot of wars. That's a tough mountain to climb. We're capable of doing it but obviously, it'll be tough."
Last year in the first round against Philadelphia, Miller struggled (5-of-21, 17 points) in the series opener but hit the game-winner. That only ratcheted up the pressure and while Miller responded, his teammates did not. He averaged 36.0 points on .522 shooting, including 41 in Game 2, but the Pacers lost all three and were eliminated.
Against the Nets, Miller scored 17 points on 6-of-16 shooting in the opener, but came up with the Pacers' biggest moment, a three-point play with 1:43 remaining that pushed the lead to four points and the Pacers held on for an 89-83 victory.
In Games 2 and 3, he was locked in from the outset, racking up 56 points and shooting .645 from the field (20 of 31). But the Pacers lost both - the second loss coming only after he missed a hurried 23-footer at the buzzer, the only failure in a 30-point night.
"I live for these moments, these times in the playoffs," he said. "We've won a lot of ballgames here and had a lot of heartbreaking losses, this being one of them. I thought this was a great opportunity for this franchise, for these young guys, to move to another level. Obviously, it's not over yet but we've got to come out Tuesday and play a lot smarter. We didn't play very smart and we still had chances to win the ballgame. Pretty much, I guess that's all you can really ask for."
Miller, who finished the regular season ranked 18th on the NBA career scoring list (22,623), has moved past Nets coach Byron Scott into 23rd on the postseason list (2,518). His postseason average of 23.5 is substantially higher than his regular-season average of 19.2; he is one of but a handful of players in NBA history to become so much more productive in the playoffs.
Which is precisely why Scott said his heart stopped "for a couple of beats" when, with the Nets leading 85-84 and just eight-tenths of a second remaining - time only for a catch-and-shoot inbounds play - Miller broke free of Jason Kidd for a surprisingly open, if extremely rushed, shot.
"But the one guy I fear the most on that team is Reggie Miller because of his experience and because of the way he can explode in the playoffs, just the way he enjoys the moment," Scott said.
Said Kidd, "When you have a great player like Reggie taking the last shot, nine out of 10 times you're going to walk away with your head down."
Asked to rank Miller with the playoff greats he has seen in his career, Scott didn't hesitate.
"Of all the teams I played for, he’s in the top three or four," he said. "There’s Magic Johnson, James (Worthy) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), and there’s probably Reggie. I’ve seen this guy do some amazing things in the playoffs."
Now, if only he could get a little help from his young friends.
O'Neal has struggled after scoring 30 in the opener, totaling 24 on .286 shooting since. No one else, starter or reserve, has risen to the occasion.
"Playoff time is what Reggie lives for," O'Neal said. "He'll tell you all year, 'I'm going to pace myself but when playoff time comes, I'm going to step it up.' We know he's going to give us 30-plus. We know that. The key is he get some help. I haven't really helped him and our team really hasn't helped him, to be truthful. We've got to focus in and try to do something to help Reggie out because he's definitely carrying this team right now."
Miller's point to his teammates is not so much about scoring; it is about capturing loose balls and long rebounds, treating every possession with respect and concentrating on the basics from beginning to end. If not for an offensive rebound by Keith Van Horn in the final 30 seconds, Kerry Kittles wouldn't have had the opportunity to hit the game-winning 3-pointer.
"I'm surrounded by some very young but talented players, who hopefully are learning what playoff basketball is all about, what each possession, what each free throw, what each offensive rebound we give up means to a ballgame," Miller said. "We're a rebound away from being up 2-1. All we need to do is get a rebound. It's the little things that count in the playoffs. You saw a case in point tonight."
That Miller has been able to produce at this level, at this age, is more evidence of his remarkable ability to live for the moment. In the last two postseasons, both past the age of 35, Miller has averaged 28.3 points on .489 shooting (.431 from the 3-point line).
"Father Time catches up to all of us," he said. "It's a little bit tougher because obviously I'm not as quick as I was when I was 26 coming off those screens. I think I had a little bit more of an offensive arsenal. But one thing that never leaves is your mind for the game. I think I execute screens as well as a 26-year-old and I can read defenses probably better than anyone in the league. That's probably the advantage I have. ...
"I could come out and play terrible in Game 4. You just go out and try to do what you can do. Obviously, I take the 82 games a lot lighter than I used to because my body can't take it. I try to wait in the weeds to get ready for the playoffs because, personally, I can't do it for 82 games. I play for the playoffs. That's where all your money is, that's where everyone talks about you, that's what you're known for. These guys have put me in the position of playing in the playoffs and I'm trying to take them to another level."
It's up to them to come along for the ride.