Surging Miller Leading the Way

by Conrad Brunner

Feb. 27, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 27, 2001 - The moment came almost two weeks ago, in the aftermath of a horrific performance in a 77-66 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, when Reggie Miller decided enough was enough.

Reggie Miller Miller

The Pacers - his Pacers - were 21-28, out of the playoff bracket in the Eastern Conference, and there weren't a lot of reasons to believe things were going to change drastically for the better any time soon.

So Miller created a reason to believe.

He stepped forward and publicly laid his claim to team leadership, as well as shouldering responsibility for lifting the Pacers out of their slump.

"All along, I wanted to see if these young guys could compete night-in and night-out and some nights they showed they were ready and other nights you were left scratching your head," Miller said. "The inconsistency of the play was really bothering me. I want to make the playoffs and I want to compete.

"It's all about the playoffs for me. I don't care about the regular season. But as it was going, at that particular time we weren't going to make the playoffs. If anyone was going to do something, since it's quote-unquote, still my team, it had to come from me. I just wanted to step up."

A team desperate for a spark got it from Miller. In the five games since, he has averaged 26.0 points, shot .528 from the field and .474 from the 3-point line as the Pacers have gone 4-1 to climb back into the playoff hunt.

At 25-29, they are in eighth place entering Wednesday night's game in Conseco Fieldhouse against Milwaukee, which leads the Central Division.

"When you define leadership, the great leaders, the great players stand tall when things are at their worst," said head coach Isiah Thomas. "But when things are going really good, they're willing to stay in the background and let others get the credit.

"That's Reggie Miller."

Jalen Rose has been stuck in a month-long shooting slump - he's averaging 17.8 points on .392 shooting over the last 13 games. Jermaine O'Neal also has been struggling to regain his touch, averaging just 8.7 points and shooting .417 over the last nine games.

So Miller assumed the offensive mantle, raising his production markedly over his full-season averages of 19.4 points and .447 shooting. He has attempted 17.8 shots per game in the last five, 14.7 on the season. He has attempted 7.6 three-pointers in the last five, 5.6 on the season. His accuracy has also risen dramatically.

"When Reggie is playing at the top of his game, or is giving the output like he has been, everybody else follows suit," said Travis Best. "That's always been the case since I've been here. He's not going to have it every night but when he's putting out the effort and he's knocking down shots and he's doing all the things that we need him to do in order for us to win, that makes all the difference in the world. Everybody else has to come out with the same effort."

While Miller has long been a focal point on the court, he has not always been a leadership figure in the locker room. In recent years, that role was handled primarily by Mark Jackson. But with Jackson and spiritual leader Dale Davis gone, Miller has forced himself to take a more active, vocal role - hence the bold statements two weeks ago, prior to a victory over Detroit.

"When Reggie says those types of things, he's trying to make sure we're all playing to his level," said Sam Perkins. "There are certain players in this league who can play to a level like he does. When you make statements like that, he knows there's a sense of urgency. We've had time to think about it, and we've modulated so many opportunities to be real good, and be in a good position. So when things like that are said, he's basically trying to say, 'Follow me. We'll get there, but I need your help and I need you to play like I do every night.' That doesn't mean you have to shoot the ball well, but play to a certain level of intensity.

"He's been in this situation so many times, we all give him respect. We have a young team that might need to hear that, and a lot of guys who haven't been in a position to play as they do see how he plays every night. And when they see that and learn that they have to do it too because he demands it, hopefully it'll be contagious throughout the team."

Thomas said Miller's leadership extends beyond the games and onto the practice floor, where his legendary preparation and work ethic have provided a strong example for the team's impressionable younger players.

"His play has been fantastic but what he's given to our young players is belief and hope," Thomas said. "He hasn't given up on the year. Through his being steady about his commitment to a winning season and making the playoffs, the younger players have followed him."

Contact Conrad Brunner at Cbrunner@Pacers.com.