The Pacers' ascent to the 2000 NBA Finals was fueled by three memorable close-out games, each one linked by a similar force of nature: Reggie Miller.
Travis Best's game-winning 3-pointer in Game 5 of the first-round series with Milwaukee on May 4 stands as perhaps the greatest shot in the history of the Pacers' franchise, but it wouldn't have meant anything if Miller hadn't scored 41 points.
The Pacers eliminated Philadelphia in Game 6 of the second round on May 19 behind 25 points from Miller, who had been suspended for Game 5 after throwing a retaliatory punch at Matt Geiger in Game 4.
And then, on June 2, Miller scored 34 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter, to deliver a 93-80 victory over New York in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It still ranks as the most meaningful in the Pacers' NBA history — primarily because it sent them to the Finals for the first and still-only time, but also because it came in Madison Square Garden where so many of their best and worst postseason moments had played out amid high drama.
Location was everything in this case. So was timing. There could not possibly have been a better place for the Pacers to win a game that sent them to the Finals than the Garden — not even in their new home, then called Conseco Fieldhouse.
Miller had scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game there in 1994, but the Pacers went on to lose that series. He scored eight points in 8.9 seconds in a second-round playoff game there in 1995, but the Pacers lost to Orlando in the conference finals. The Pacers had routinely removed the Knicks from the playoffs in the second round in 1998 but had suffered their worst playoff moment there one year earlier.
Favored by many to win the NBA championship in that lockout-shortened season, they had stumbled badly and controversially in the conference finals. They lost Game 4 in the Garden because of Larry Johnson's infamous four-point play and were eliminated there in Game 6 when the Knicks attempted 24 more foul shots. They had done plenty to self-destruct in the series, but still felt their title chance had been pick-pocketed.
So, to come back a year later and win a game in the Garden to reach the Finals? It was perfect retribution.
Miller brought up the topic with his teammates in their huddle before they took the court.
"If the league called us up and said we'd have one chance to go to the Finals, but you have to win one game and we'll let you pick the venue and the team, where would you want to play? And who would you want to play?" he asked.
The answers were obvious: Madison Square Garden. The Knicks.
Miller knew that better than anyone, of course, He was playing in his 18th — and as fate would have it, last — playoff game in the Garden. His greatest peaks and valleys had come there, and he was going out on top.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
The Pacers controlled the first half to take a nine-point lead but faltered badly in the third quarter, when they scored just 12 points. Miller scored eight of them, including a 3-pointer with 25.2 seconds left to regain a tie. Starting over with 12 minutes to go, the Pacers went on to outscore the Knicks 31-18 to win it convincingly. Miller hit three 3-pointers from a similar spot on the right wing to lead the closing sprint. At one point he had scored 17 of his team's previous 25 points.
"Reggie was awesome tonight," Pacers coach Larry Bird said. "We went to him a little more as the game went on. It seemed that he got stronger down the stretch."
Miller drew strength from the previous season's nightmare. He had hit just 3-of-18 shots in the Game 6 loss, which he considered a personal embarrassment. He had avoided the trash talk and gestures that had punctuated his earlier games there but learned that mode didn't work for him. He needed some friction to rise to the challenge. So he made it a point to state in a press conference the day before the series began in Indianapolis, one that included New York media members, that he "hated" the Knicks.
"I needed that fire," he recalled.
Miller wasn't the only Pacer to get heated in the Game 6 victory. Dale Davis had 16 rebounds for the fourth time in the series and limited the previous year's nemesis, Larry Johnson, to 3-of-10 shooting. Travis Best came off the bench to score 10 points, eight in the final period. Mark Jackson had played a major role in getting them off to a good start.
But it was Miller's moment.
"This is our home away from home, and we've had some great games in here," he said. "What better way to do it than on the road? Game 7 (back in Indianapolis) would have been too much pressure for us, because New York is the type of team that can come in to someone else's court and win. We wanted to end it here. Tonight was our Game 7."
A footnote to the game had occurred earlier in the day, when an article that was to appear in the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine was released to the media. Jess Kersey, who had called the foul on Pacers forward Antonio Davis that allowed Johnson's four-point play, admitted he had blown the call.
"I took something away from a team that didn't deserve to have it taken away," Kersey was quoted. "I'll live with that the rest of my life."
Miller took it back. And he can live with that for the rest of his life.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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