Indianapolis, November 26, 2002 - To best explain the ability of Brad Miller and Jermaine O'Neal, players of thoroughly contrasting skills and styles, to coalesce into one of the top frontcourt tandems in the NBA, a brief history lesson is in order.
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In the early years of World War II, the German battleship Bismarck was the scourge of the Atlantic, an indefatigable presence that, through control of the sea lanes, was helping strangle Great Britain by cutting its supply lines. The absolute pinnacle of shipbuilding technology of the time, the great ship was believed to be invincible, a legend that only grew when it destroyed the pride of the Royal Navy, the HMS Hood, in a surprisingly brief and one-sided engagement.
Simply put, traditional tactics and weaponry could not beat the Bismarck.
It would take the confluence of two unusual weapons - one still evolving, the other thought to be obsolete - to help change the course of the war in the Atlantic. An aircraft carrier - at the time a concept so new to battle that its role was still being defined - named Ark Royal carried nine antiquated biplane torpedo bombers called Swordfish. The old planes were so slow and flew so low, the Bismarck's high-tech guns could not be calibrated to successfully defend against them. The torpedoes found their mark and the Bismarck was disabled and eventually sunk.
What does this have to do with basketball?
Think of Shaquille O'Neal as the Bismarck. Think of Jermaine O'Neal as the aircraft carrier. And think of Brad Miller as the biplanes.
They may have just the combination, however unlikely or unconventional, to one day break the mighty Lakers' stranglehold as the dominant team in the NBA.
Jermaine O'Neal and Miller are the biggest reasons the Pacers entered this week with the best record in the Eastern Conference (10-2), which also matches the best start in franchise history (last accomplished in the 1969-70 ABA season). They have combined to averaged 33.0 points and 19.7 rebounds.
The Pacers' O'Neal doesn't hesitate when asked to evaluate the impact of his frontcourt partner. He believes they already form the best front line in the league.
"Everybody has one good post player but they don't have two," he said. "We can throw the ball on either block and make it happen. Hopefully, knock on wood, we can continue to do the same things."
O'Neal would be the flagship of any team. At 6-11, 242 pounds, he has a rare combination of strength, grace and athleticism. He can score from either block with either hand going either direction, a combination of skills that makes him virtually impossible to stop one-on-one. A skilled rebounder, as well, he has become a double-double machine. After racking up 79 the past two seasons, he started off with an even faster pace this year. He earned his first All-Star berth in his second season with the Pacers, with many more likely to come.
Miller, on the other hand, may never be an All-Star. In fact, he chuckles at the mere suggestion. Lacking O'Neal's physical skills, Miller is more like a rugby player on the floor, willing to mix it up wherever he finds a scrum. Though he has a nice jump shot to around 18 feet, he really doesn't have what you'd call a go-to move around the basket. Truth be told, his go-to move is the free throw. He has an uncanny knack for duping defenders into making contact.
Or it could be that, like the Ark Royal's biplanes, he is a throwback to another era.
"They don't grow 'em like that anymore," said O'Neal.
"It still boggles my mind how he does the stuff he does," said Jeff Foster. "But he does it and it's a benefit for us. He's slower than the average player, there's no question about that. But he's smart and he knows how to play the game. And he knows how to use what he has. When he's open, he makes the shots. He knows how to use his body and get to the free-throw line. And most big guys don't shoot anywhere near the percentage he does from the free-throw line."
In a strange way, O'Neal believes Miller uses his legendary lack of speed to his advantage.
"He's slow but extremely effective," O'Neal said. "We never know how he gets to the basket. Really, the slower moves are the ones people bite on in this league. People don't bite on quick pump fakes anymore. If you grind and grind and grind like he does, you get to the basket because you've got to take the bait."
Miller doesn't consider those evaluations an affront; indeed, they are high compliment to him.
"I'm slower and smarter," Miller said. "I'm not going to jump over everybody, so I just have to outwork them and out-think them. I'm slow and patient. Everyone's so fast in this league and it throws them off to go a little slower. You have to be smart and give pump fakes and know your strengths and their weaknesses. I think I have decent quickness. Deceptive, I think.
"I just out-think people is what it comes down to. It doesn't matter how fast you are."
Though he had a stellar college career at Purdue, averaging 17.2 points and 8.8 rebounds as a senior, he went undrafted in 1998 because the scouting reports said he was not only too slow, but too soft to even become an effective backup in the NBA.
As is his wont, Miller simply soldiered on, heading to Italy for a while before signing with the Hornets in January 1999. That audition ended with a bang when he racked up 32 points against Boston in the final game of the regular season. After one more season as a backup with the Hornets, he very nearly signed with the Pacers as a free agent in the summer before the 2000-01 season.
In the market for a backup center, the Pacers contacted Miller's agent, Mark Bartelstein, who subsequently tried to get in touch with his client. But Miller was attending a Jimmy Buffet concert that night and had his cell phone turned off. When he turned it on afterward to check for messages, he found four from Bartelstein, but, Miller said, "I wasn't in the mood to call back after the concert."
As a result, he wound up with an even greater change in latitude, signing with Chicago. Though that was his first chance to start, it was hardly a positive experience. But it all changed when Pacers President Donnie Walsh pulled off the seven-player blockbuster trade with Chicago last February. Miller, Ron Artest and Ron Mercer came to the Pacers (along with Kevin Ollie) in exchange for Jalen Rose and Travis Best.
All of a sudden, Miller was considered a key starter on a playoff caliber team for the first time in his career. His role has only grown this season.
"He's the most important piece," said coach Isiah Thomas of Miller. "We can't win without him in the middle. He allows Jermaine to do what he does, and he allows everybody else to do what they do. It's kind of like what (Bill) Laimbeer was for us (in Detroit). There's no way we could've won the championships without Laimbeer because he allowed everybody to be themselves. That's what Brad does for this team."
Before the deal, O'Neal was forced to play center, meaning he drew the toughest matchup on defense and the best defender on offense. His body also absorbed a disproportionate physical beating. With Miller in the middle, O'Neal has been freed to play his natural position, power forward, and the results have been obvious.
The two have combined to average more than 36 points and 18 rebounds per game since becoming teammates.
For his part, Miller shrugs off the accolades, and their inherent pressure. A small-town boy from Kendallville, IN, he has little interest in the bright lights. He just wants to put in a solid day's work, win a few ballgames, and head home. He spends his offseason in Kendallville, where it's easy to get to his favorite fishing spots.
O'Neal, on the other hand, is very urban. A native of Columbia, S.C., who was drafted by Portland out of Eau Claire High School in 1996, he was introduced to the big-city lifestyle at the tender age of 17 and warmed to it. He maintains an offseason home in Atlanta, where he has opened a hip-hop recording studio (Bogota Entertainment), and makes frequent visits to see friends and family in Portland.
If Miller steadfastly avoided stardom, it has been O'Neal's destiny.
"I've never played with anybody that good at the four spot," Miller said. "I want to see him shine. I like passing the ball and he likes shooting it. I like getting to the free-throw line and we both like to rebound. We're both just playing to our strengths, not trying to do too much and just letting it come. The way it's going, we're just looking for each other and it's coming naturally through the offense for us."
When the trade was made, the Pacers believed Miller's skills would serve as a perfect complement to O'Neal. Little did anyone realize their personalities would mesh so well. The players have developed a symbiotic relationship on the court that has its roots in the locker room.
O'Neal traces it back a little farther, even before the trade. On one trip to Chicago, he bumped into Miller in the hallway between the locker rooms in United Center and the two struck up a conversation. The topic: how much fun it would be to play together.
"You always want to play with a guy that's not going to back down from anybody," O'Neal said. "Even though we had some tough times, that's the type guy you want on your team. We've been molding with each other, hanging out away from the court, getting to know each other on a personal basis and it's helping us on the court.
"We know each other right now. Last year everything kind of happened real quick but now we're looking at each other and giving signals to each other. If we can continue to do that and create an atmosphere kind of like Tim Duncan and David Robinson did when David was in his younger days, we can be extremely effective."
Their ability to work together was crystallized early in the season in Miami. The Heat had rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game 77-all with 1:50 remaining, but Miller and O'Neal simply took over.
First, Miller drew eye contact from O'Neal and threw a perfectly timed lob that resulted in a reverse dunk. Miller then blocked Eddie Jones' shot, leading to a layup on a pass from O'Neal. Miller then sealed the game with his favorite move: making two free throws for an 83-79 victory.
"The better you get to know your teammate, the more you understand the things about him that he likes and doesn't like, the way you can communicate with him, things that may be funny to him or things that me may not like," said Thomas. "Those are important aspects of playing together and being in a locker-room environment and working together out on the floor.
"Nine times out of 10 you win the basketball game before you get to the floor - the bus, the plane ride, the training room. Those are the places where you develop chemistry. Those are the places where you get to know and understand your teammates better so when you get out on the floor you have a special feeling about your teammate. You don't want him to be embarrassed. You don't want to put him in bad situations. It's a trust factor."
They are so different, yet so compatible. Perhaps it's because they share one overriding goal: to win. Though not strangers to the postseason, neither has experienced much success. O'Neal was a little-used reserve when Portland reached the Western Conference finals in 1999 and 2000 - the latter series ending with that devastating fourth-quarter collapse to the Lakers in Game 7. Miller has yet to advance beyond the first round.
Is there anything more dangerous than a talented player with something to prove?
"Yes - a talented player who wants to win a championship," said O'Neal. "Proving yourself each and every night is what you want to do but proving it for the ultimate cause - winning and trying to build toward a championship - is that much better."
History even offers a little more coincidental encouragement. Shaquille O'Neal missed most of the season's first month with a toe injury. The Bismarck was sunk after first putting into drydock for repairs.