By John Clayton
Indianapolis, Jan. 21, 2004
At age 38, years removed from his last All-Star appearance, it's understood he can never again be the old Reggie Miller. That doesn't mean he has to accept being an old Reggie Miller.
When Miller scored 31 points in New York on Nov. 15, it appeared, at the time, to be an aberration. It turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.
To that point in the season, the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point baskets was averaging 8.9 points per game and was, depending on who else was on the floor, the third or fourth scoring option in the Pacers’ offense. To save wear and tear on Miller’s 38-year-old body and surgically-repaired right ankle, Coach Rick Carlisle routinely limited Miller’s minutes to no more than 30 per game.
And Miller, himself, acquiesced to the younger talents around him, giving Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest and Al Harrington the focus that had revolved around Miller for more than a decade as a member of the Pacers. If this Pacers team was to be carried to victory, it would arrive on younger backs.
The spindly shadow of Miller loomed larger than the player, himself - at least until recently.
“Reggie has played brilliantly the last week,” said Carlisle. “Without him, I don’t know where we’d be in this stretch. He’s come up with either monster games or monster shots. So, there’s a little bit more of an effort on my part to get him involved. There’s a little bit more of an effort by our team to set screens and get him looks at the hoop. His aggressiveness level has picked up over the last 10 days – and it’s important that it has. For us to be as good as we can be, he’s got to be on the floor and he’s got to be doing what he does. He’s been doing just that.”
The Pacers have won 12 of their last 13 games, including their last five, which included victories over defending NBA Champion San Antonio, defending Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey, Central Division rival Detroit and a pair of hard-fought victories over Atlanta.
During that stretch, Miller has averaged 17 points per game, hitting 24 of 46 (52 percent) of his field goal attempts and 16 of 34 (47 percent) of his 3-point tries. He is also 21 of 22 (96 percent) from the foul line. It would be easy to say the performances were “vintage Reggie Miller,” but that would lessen their worth. They have been more vital than vintage.
In an 85-78 victory over Atlanta on Jan. 14, Miller scored all of his 13 points in the fourth quarter to rally the Pacers to a victory. He followed that game with a 28-point performance to lead Indiana past San Antonio and avenge an overtime loss to the Spurs a week earlier.
“Hopefully, I don’t need a game like this to let them know that I’m still a weapon,” Miller said of his scoring outburst against the Spurs. “I hope they’ll assume I’m still a weapon, but, obviously, we’ve got great offensive scorers in Jermaine and Ron and Al, but when things aren’t going well for them or the defense focuses so much on them, if I can sneak in a three here and there to keep them honest, I try and do that.”
Before that 89-79 home win over the Spurs on Jan. 16, Miller had scored 20 points or more in a game only once – against the Knicks – this season. With that game and a 22-point performance in just 30 minutes of Tuesday night’s 81-69 victory over Detroit, Miller has crossed the 20-point barrier twice in three games.
“I’m getting my legs back underneath me and the ankle is feeling much better and the confidence is there,” he said. “Rick is running more plays (for me). But let’s not jump the gun here, our offensive weapons are Al and Ron and Jermaine.”
But this stretch would suggest that Miller can no longer be discounted as an aging player whose days as the NBA’s pre-eminent 3-point threat are behind him. In January, he has scored in double figures in eight of 11 games and the Pacers have been winning. In the team’s middling month of December, Miller reached double figures just four times in 16 games. The Pacers went 9-7.
“I’m just getting some good looks,” Miller said. “I changed my mechanics at the beginning of the year. And at the first of the year, not knowing how the ankle was going to respond to the surgery in game action – it’s felt better and guys are setting better screens and I’m just trying to be a little bit more aggressive.”
Miller has worked with former teammate Chuck Person to rebuild his mechanics since offseason ankle surgery. The surgery repaired an injury suffered during the World Championships in 2002 and hampered Miller all of last season. Miller said he had to get his legs back into his shot more and begin to trust the wounded ankle again.
“He’s got his legs back up under him,” said Jermaine O’Neal. “Early, I think he was still trying to adjust to the surgery. I think for the most part, he’s still the best shooter in the league when he gets his feet down – and sometimes he doesn’t even need his feet down to get a good shot. Just getting him his proper rest and not having him really bang with guys and play big minutes is helping him.”
The fact that Miller usually plays fewer than 30 minutes per game is attributed to the Pacers’ depth as well as Carlisle’s desire to have Miller fresh for a postseason run.
“He needs to be as involved as we can get him,” Carlisle said. “What our guys have to understand is Reggie can draw so much attention at times, we have to be ready to shoot the ball.”
If not, Miller has spent the past week stating emphatically that he is again ready to shoot the ball, returning an aggression to his game some thought was long gone.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of us take Reggie for granted because he’s done it so many times for so many years that you just expect the guy to do great things,” said Carlisle. “It’s a lot harder to be Reggie Miller than a lot of us could possibly imagine. To maintain his body and his mind to a state where he could still play at this level at 38 years of age is nothing less than remarkable.
“I’ve always had tremendous respect for him, even when he was a younger player because I knew he had such respect for the game and he really worked at it. But to see what he’s doing now in so many ways, it’s even more impressive.”