by Conrad Brunner
March 21, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS March 21, 2001 - Much has been made, and justifiably so, in recent weeks about the dramatic improvement of young players Al Harrington and Jermaine O'Neal, as well as their growth into roles of greater prominence.
Without them, the Pacers certainly would not be in position to claim a playoff berth.
But this is the time of year, and the Pacers are in a scenario, where every victory will be hard earned, and every game holds enhanced significance. It's time for the players who have won before to step forward and win again.
And the leader of that pack remains Reggie Miller.
For the second time in three games, Miller made the most important plays down the stretch to lead the Pacers to victory against a superior opponent, this time 96-95 over Orlando on Wednesday night in Conseco Fieldhouse.
He scored nine of his 22 points in the final eight minutes, including a huge three-pointer to put the Pacers ahead for good, 94-91, with 1:14 remaining. After Orlando cut it one on the next possession, he ran off a baseline screen, turned and threw his right leg out, drawing contact from charging defender Darrell Armstrong and the attention of the officials, who fell for the old trick and called a foul.
Miller, of course, made both free throws, to give the Pacers just enough of a cushion to survive two more Orlando possessions.
"Reggie's got a lot left in him," said Harrington, who had 12 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. "He's only 35 and he's still playing basketball at a whole other level. He's playing at a level we're trying to get to. This is his team still. I'd never dispute that any day.
"You just have to watch him. At the end of the game, he wants the ball in his hands and he does whatever he has to do to get the ball in his hands."
In the Pacers' previous victory, he scored 12 points in the final 6:14 -- including the team's last eight -- to quell a Sacramento comeback attempt and deliver a 101-95 victory. With two minutes left, he hit a three-pointer to give the Pacers a 96-86 lead.
After three offensive possessions resulted in missed shots by other players, the Kings had closed to 96-93. So the ball went back into Miller's hands, and Sacramento had no choice but to foul, which is really no choice at all when Miller is concerned.
"It's Reggie's ball. It's Reggie's game," said Sam Perkins. "It's our job to get him open and nine times out 10, towards the end, teams know it's going to be Reggie. We might get some big plays from other people, but it's basically going to be Reggie's type of game. He wants it in his hands, and what he does best is to get it and make something happen."
Statistically, this has been one of the worst seasons of Miller's career, his shooting percentages uncharacteristically low. And until the Sacramento game, he had been in a slump, averaging just 14.2 points and shooting .364 from the field over the previous six games.
Professionally, it has been difficult to adjust to a rebuilding situation in the latter stages of his career, and frustrating to deal with the inconsistency that comes with an influx of youth.
But all of that can be put aside now. Starting Wednesday night, the Pacers were looking at their own sweet 16 (games remaining), with their eyes on advancing to the elite eight (playoff teams in the Eastern Conference).
"I just want to make the dance," Miller said. "I think anything is possible once you become one of the elite eight in your conference. I'm just trying to do anything to make the playoffs. We've definitely been up and down, but we have a shot."
His teammates can see the renewed fire in Miller's eyes, the extra bounce in his step. Many of them have seen it so many times before, it has become a matter of late-season routine.
"In playoff basketball, your big-time players, your veterans, your guys that have been there year-in and year-out, those are the guys who get the ball at the end of the game," said Austin Croshere. "We're approaching playoff basketball right now in this race with Boston. I know Reggie feels that. Everybody on this team feels it.
"There's been a couple times during the course of the year where we say we've turned the corner, then we lose three or four. I really don't feel like that's going to happen now because there's this sense of urgency, there's a playoff push coming, there's a playoff atmosphere and everybody feels it. And Reggie is really stepping up into that position he always does this time of year."
Regardless of his age, shooting percentage or scoring average, one thing remains constant with Miller: he still wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.
"I don't always have to shoot it," he said, "but I can make the play."
Contact Conrad Brunner at Brunofirstname.lastname@example.org