A Season to Remember (Part 2)
Looking Back at the Franchise's First Trip to the NBA Finals, 15 Years Later
Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part story on the 1999-2000 Pacers season, covering the Pacers' 2000 playoff run. Read Part 1 »
7. The season's momentum – for that matter the season itself – was nearly lost in the first round of the playoffs, though, as eighth-seeded Milwaukee took the Pacers to the limit.
The Bucks were led by the trio of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell, and coached by George Karl. They were more athletic than the Pacers, and by the time the best-of-five series had reached its climactic fifth game, equally confident. Game 4 in Milwaukee had not gone well for the Pacers, as they missed all 13 3-point shots, and Miller had called out the reserves in the postgame press conference.
"Their bench killed our bench tonight," he said. "Our bench ought to be embarrassed tonight."
The Bucks were clearly confident about their chances of upsetting the Pacers in the final game of the best-of-five series back at The Fieldhouse. They led by 10 in the first half, by six in the fourth quarter and by three in the final three minutes. Other than Miller, the Pacers were struggling mightily to score. Best, who by season's end was playing the second and fourth quarters at point guard while Jackson played the first and third, was having the most difficult night of all. He missed a driving layup in the final minute, with the Pacers trailing by a point. Davis missed a rebound attempt, but the ball deflected off Robinson and out of bounds to the Pacers. Best then missed a 3-pointer, making him 2-of-14 for the game. Davis, though, grabbed the rebound and passed out to Miller, who passed to Rose, who drove the left lane, drew a defender and passed to Best, who was wide open in the left corner in front of the Bucks' bench with 16.5 seconds left.
He didn't miss that one.
"I was surprised how wide open I was," he said later. "I just let it go."
Best was wide open because the Bucks' defense was more focused on Miller. And for good reason. Miller had scored 41 points, a Pacers' NBA playoff record, 18 of them in a 7 ½ minute stretch in the fourth quarter. He hit 15-of-25 shots overall, backing up the bold statement he had made by wearing a Superman T-shirt in pre-game warmups for the second time in the series.
"He was going to make us or break us," Bird said of Miller. "He played a phenomenal game. He made it happen. He was phenomenal."
Best's 3-pointer didn't end the drama, though. The Bucks trailed by just two with plenty of time left to win the game, but center Earvin Johnson hit just 1-of-2 foul shots with 6.2 seconds to make it a one-point game. They intentionally fouled Rose, and he missed both attempts, giving Milwaukee one last shot to win. Allen, however, missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The coldest shooter had hit the biggest shot in the Pacers' 96-95 victory.
"You were like in shooting school!" Miller told Best in the locker room, imitating a relaxed shooter taking a deep breath and checking his feet to make sure he was aligned properly.
"It's funny," Best said. "We were a few seconds from being on vacation and a lot of different things going on in the summer. Now we're looking at another series. It's a big swing."
It would turn out to be gargantuan.
Travis Best's heroics saved the Pacers from an early exit in the 2000 playoffs. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
8. If a game's turning point can come off the opening tip, it happened when the Pacers began their second-round series with Philadelphia.
Davis controlled the jump to Smits, who turned right and fed a cutting Miller, who pulled up and hit a 3-pointer from the left wing that instantly recaptured the momentum from the dramatic ending to the Milwaukee series less than 48 hours earlier. With The Fieldhouse rocking from start to finish, the Pacers rode the wave to a 108-91 victory.
Miller scored 40 points this time, 16 in the first quarter and 13 in the final 6 ½ minutes. He hit 7-of-10 3-pointers, including three in succession to snuff out a Sixers rally in the final period. Rose added 40 of his own, hitting 16-of-23 shots. They became the first set of teammates in Pacers' history to score 40 or more in a game, and the fifth in NBA history to do it in a playoff game.
Rose received an unusual assist to get his 40. He had missed those two crucial free throws in the final seconds of the Milwaukee game, so Miller and Bird conspired to let him shoot three technical free throws with 2:53 left, when the game was in hand – a task normally assigned to Miller, the team's best foul shooter. The intent was to help restore his confidence from the foul line. Rose hit them all.
Suddenly, a team that had been on the brink of a disastrous elimination two days earlier, was worried about complacency.
"Winning by 17 points kind of scares me," Miller said. "I know (the Sixers) are going to come out ready in Game 2 and we have to match that intensity."
Future Hall of Famers Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson faced off in the second round in 2000. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
9. The Pacers did just that, winning Game 2 by six points. They won Game 3 in Philly, too, by eight, and appeared to be rolling to a sweep. The Sixers were desperate at that point, and all but pulled out the brass knuckles in Game 4. Center Matt Geiger gave Miller two hard fouls, the second one knocking him down on the baseline in the third quarter. Miller jumped up and threw an overhead swipe at Geiger that missed, and was ejected. The 76ers went on to win the game, and with Miller suspended for Game 5 back in Indianapolis, won that one, too, by 21 points, to pull within 3-2.
The series didn't resume for four more days after that, so the Pacers – especially Miller – had plenty of time to reflect and regroup. They probably didn't need added motivation for Game 6, but they got it anyway. Stephen A. Smith penned a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer stating the Pacers were done. The 76ers had all the momentum, he wrote, and would win the series. Allen Iverson pitched in as well, when asked after Game 5 if the Pacers would need a greater sense of urgency the next time out.
"They'd better," he said. "Because our fans are going to be into it. We really feel like we have a shot – definitely – now. We really feel good about our chances.
"We'll bring our A game. For them to get out of there with a win, they'll definitely have to bring their A game. We're looking forward to it."
So was Miller, the master of postseason A games.
As he paced back and forth in front of the Pacers bench before tip-off for Game 6 at First Union Center, a front-row Philly fan taunted him. "Can you be a hero tonight, Reggie?!" he shouted over and over. "Can you be a hero tonight?!"
Some fans held up signs mocking Miller, and most of them joined in the time-honored chant of "Reg-gie sucks!"
Miller had the last word. He scored 13 points in the first quarter, hitting 6-of-8 field goal attempts, and had nine more in the third, when the Pacers took a 16-point lead. He finished with 25 points, hitting 10-of-19 shots, and added six rebounds and just one turnover in a 106-90 wipeout that ended the series.
During a timeout with two minutes remaining, the outcome inevitable, the same fan who had taunted Miller before the game gave due credit.
"Hey, Reggie, good game!" he shouted. "You killed us, baby, you killed us!"
Philly's fans should have known better. Miller thrived in hostile surroundings, feeding off the insults.
"This is the best atmosphere for me," he said. "When you go into an environment like this and you have 20,000 to 25,000 people and all day they've been drinking and all day they've been making signs and all day they've been cursing your name frontwards and backwards so they can come here and taunt you ... this is the best for me."
For Reggie Miller, it was only fitting that he clinched his first and only conference championship in Madison Square Garden. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
10. Well, maybe not the best. That atmosphere remained at Madison Square Garden, where Miller had built so much of his legacy and where the Pacers had experienced so many Everests and Grand Canyons.
Miller had taken a low-key approach against the Knicks the previous season, but hit just 3-of-18 shots in their Game 6 loss in the Garden. So, he went back to his traditional postseason mojo. He declared at the press conference before Game 1 of the series that he "hated" the Knicks, and looked for ways to stoke that hatred throughout the series.
That late-season loss in the Garden, with the blown goaltending call, helped. So did the previous season's miseries. So, the stage was set for Game 6 on June 2. The Pacers had a 3-2 series lead and a chance to exorcise an arena full of demons.
Inspired by Miller's pre-game locker room talk, in which he reminded them there was no better place to earn a trip to the Finals, and then by Miller's performance on the court, the Pacers won, 93-80. Miller scored 34 points, 25 in the second half. He kept them in the game in the third quarter when they let a nine-point halftime lead slip to a three-point deficit, and hit a 3-pointer to tie the game entering the final period. He scored 17 points the rest of the way to close out the mission.
Davis grabbed 16 rebounds for the fourth time in the series and Best scored eight of his 10 points in the final period, but it was Miller's time again.
"I needed that fire," he said, explaining his hateful approach to the series. "Last year I didn't have that fire. I never talked trash and I gave them all the respect. That killed my game, because I wasn't as aggressive for the whole series."
The Pacers didn't know yet who their opponent in the Finals would be, because the Lakers and Portland still had a Game 7 to play in the Western Conference Finals the next day.
It would be the Lakers, of course.
11. The Finals opened in L.A., because the Lakers had won a league-best 67 games in the regular season, 11 more than the Pacers. To say the least, the Pacers weren't prepared for this new challenge.
Their team bus got caught in rush-hour traffic before Game 1, causing them to arrive later than planned to the Staples Center. They got off to a miserable start in the game, too, trailing 33-18 after the first quarter, and wound up losing 104-87. Miller, who grew up an hour outside of L.A., in Riverside, was a mere mortal this time, hitting just 1-of-16 shots.
There was a silver lining, though. The Pacers were outscored by just two points over the final three quarters, setting the tone for the rest of the series. It would be a better match-up than most people expected.
Young Kobe Bryant's performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals played a pivotal role in the Lakers eventually edging out the Pacers for the title. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
12. The tipping point of the series came in Game 4, with the Lakers holding a 2-1 lead. Another win and they would be in command of the series. A Pacers' victory and the series would be tied, with Game 5 to be played at The Fieldhouse.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable and well-played games in The Fieldhouse's history, thanks mostly to Kobe Bryant.
Bryant was a couple of months short of 22, but already in his fourth NBA season. He had sprained an ankle early in Game 2 when Rose stepped under him on a jump shot, and sat out the Pacers' Game 3 victory in Indianapolis. But this would be his breakout performance.
The Pacers had a chance to win in regulation, but Best missed badly on a 15-footer jumper at the buzzer. It turned out he had sprained his shoulder moments earlier after jumping on O'Neal's back to try to prevent a layup. Best – 130 pounds lighter than O'Neal – was called for a flagrant foul, but got the worst of it. O'Neal shrugged him off as if he were confetti.
O'Neal fouled out with 2:27 left in overtime, when the Lakers led by three points, brightening the Pacers' outlook considerably. That's when Bryant took over. He scored three field goals the rest of the way, including a rebound basket with 5.9 seconds remaining that turned out to be the game-winner in L.A.'s 120-118 victory.
Miller finished with 35 points. Bryant, bad ankle and all, had 28, 22 after halftime and eight in the overtime period.
"In our mind, this was the championship," Bryant told Ahmad Rashad in an on-court interview.
"When Shaq fouled out, my mindset was, This game just became an awful lot more interesting than it was. It was fun for me. I laughed about it. I just went out and played relaxed, like I was in the backyard."
Jalen Rose won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award for the 1999-2000 season and backed it up with a solid playoff performance. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
13. Down 3-1, the Pacers didn't quit. Up 3-1, the Lakers relaxed. The result was a 120-87 Game 5 victory that kept hope alive.
Bryant acted his age this time, hitting just 4-of-20 shots, and the Lakers combined to hit just 4-of-19 3-pointers and 11-of-21 foul shots. Rose led the Pacers with 32 points, hitting 4-of-5 3-pointers, and Miller added 25.
PHOTO GALLERY: 15th Anniversary of Game 5 of 2000 NBA Finals »
It was June 16, a notable date because it marked the last time Pacers fans saw this team play at The Fieldhouse, and the last time they saw Bird coach it. It had rained all afternoon, but the Pacers reported to work in an upbeat mood. They scored 39 points in the first quarter, hitting 15-of-20 shots and were in control the entire game.
"Overall we played as well as we can play," Bird said.
But then it was back to L.A. The Pacers were fighting both the Lakers and history, because no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
14. The Pacers didn't concede in L.A., either. In fact, they led for much of Game 6. Jackson's 40-foot heave at the buzzer gave them a 26-24 lead after the first quarter. They led by as many as 12 in the second and by six early in the fourth. The Lakers scored on their first 10 possessions in the period, but the Pacers hung tough. Rose's 3-pointer tied the game at 103 with 5:08 left, and Croshere's two free throws with 1:32 remaining got the Pacers within a point.
That was followed by a questionable call, the kind home teams tend to get in the playoffs. Davis, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, deflected Glen Rice's driving shot, but Croshere was called for a foul on the scuffle for rebound. Rice hit both free throws with 1:15 left to put the Lakers back up by three.
"The referees ought to turn their heads on something like that," Miller said afterward. "But it was a veteran official, Joey Crawford, who I respect immensely, making that call."
Miller missed a rushed 3-pointer with 31 seconds left that could have tied the game, and the Pacers' dream died with a 116-111 defeat.
In the end, it all came down to O'Neal, who was in his absolute prime at the time. He had been named MVP of the regular season and co-MVP of the All-Star game, and now was the obvious MVP choice of the Finals. He finished with 41 points in Game 6 – his third 40-plus game in the series – and set up teammates for crucial 3-pointers in the fourth quarter because of the attention the Pacers had to give him.
"It's disappointing when it gets to the point where you know you're not the best team," Bird said. "Shaquille O'Neal was just too dominant."
The Lakers gave due credit, though.
"Being forced to bring your A game made it more exciting, and perhaps a little more satisfying," O'Neal said.
"I think it was somewhat remarkable the way they played," Lakers coach Phil Jackson added. "They gave us some wonderful ballgames."
Reggie Miller played like a Superman for much of the 2000 playoffs, leading Indiana on its deepest postseason run in NBA franchise history. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)
15. The Pacers' future was waiting for them even before Game 6. Isiah Thomas, the heavily rumored candidate to replace Bird as the coach and part of the national television broadcast crew for the game, was standing next to the door leading to the Pacers' locker room as they came off the bus. He was decked out smartly in a blue and gold ensemble, an unspoken but obvious giveaway to his future plans. A few players acknowledged him, and Rose gave him a warm greeting, but Bird cast him a dirty look and appeared to mumble something under his breath.
Thomas had to remain coy about his plan to coach the Pacers because he wasn't eligible to do so until he sold the Continental Basketball Association. He did say, however, he hoped to get the opportunity. Assistant coach Rick Carlisle and former Pacers guard Byron Scott were the other candidates.
The process dragged on while the sale was negotiated and the legal work completed to free Thomas. He was finally announced as the Pacers' next coach on July 20. But he would coach a much different team than Bird had. Over the summer, Smits retired, Dale Davis was traded to Portland for Jermaine O'Neal, Jackson accepted a contract with Toronto that was superior to the one Walsh offered, and Mullin returned to Golden State to finish his career where he had started it.
Meanwhile, Rose – who was voted the league's Most Improved Player that season after replacing Mullin in the starting lineup and led the Pacers in regular season scoring – signed a max contract worth more than $90 million for seven years. Croshere had been one of the leading vote-getters for Most Improved and averaged 15.2 points and six rebounds against the Lakers off the bench. He parlayed that into a seven-year deal worth $51 million.
The Pacers would be back in the conference finals in 2004, and again in 2013 and 2014. One could argue each of those teams was more talented than the one that lost to the Lakers in 2000, but it doesn't matter. They didn't get as far.
Editor's Note: You just finished Part 2 of a two-part story on the 1999-2000 Pacers season. Read Part 1 »
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