On May 7, 1995, Reggie Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. For the 20th anniversary of that moment, Pacers.com's Mark Montieth looks back at the impact that game had on basketball fans from Indiana to Asia.
It sounded like a meaningless cliché when Tom Hammond threw out the line at the start of the television broadcast. Just another routine, harmless bit of pre-game hype.
"The Garden will be no place for the faint of heart today!" he said, as the Pacers and New York were about to tip off Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Oh, if he only knew. If only he could have known what he and color analyst Bill Walton were about to describe to a worldwide television audience. If only he could have foretold the seismic blast that would send the fans in a sold-out Madison Square Garden home in a state of shock, make Reggie Miller a worldwide icon and, perhaps, drastically alter the course of two franchises, one of which wasn't playing that day.
It also became part of the Miller narrative that has influenced lives around the globe.
Just say "eight points in 8.9 seconds" and NBA fans instantly get it. They'll recognize the reference to Miller's improbable, if not miraculous, scoring flurry that brought the Pacers back from a six-point deficit with 24.7 seconds left to a victory without the need of an overtime. It will live forever as one of the greatest moments in NBA playoff history, sure to inspire anniversary stories for as long as there is an NBA, because, as Walton said at the other end of the broadcast, it was "one of the most remarkable comebacks in all of basketball."
Miller was mostly responsible for it, but he couldn't have done it without a multitude of follies from the Knicks, and even one from a teammate.
To set the stage for the best 8.9 seconds an NBA player has ever had, you have to go back a year, to when the Pacers and Knicks met in the '94 conference finals. Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5, leading the Pacers to a victory and a 3-2 lead in the series. He punctuated his onslaught by responding to Spike Lee's courtside taunts by alternately glaring at him, wrapping his hands around his neck to indicate the Knicks were choking.
PHOTO GALLERY: 31 Photos of Reggie Miller in a Flo-Jo Jersey »
The Knicks came back to win the series in seven games, but those Game 5 moments were fresh in the collective memory of fans everywhere – and the primary reason for Hammond's pre-game warning to the faint of heart – when the series rematch began on May 7 of '95. The Pacers had won 52 games in the regular season, best in the franchise's NBA history to that point, and had swept Atlanta in the best-of-five first-round series. New York had won 55 games and defeated Cleveland 3-1 in the first round. The two teams had split their four regular season games, each winning once on the road.
The Knicks had history on their side, having owned the Pacers, going 28-4 against Indiana over the previous 10 years in games in the Garden and having eliminated the Pacers in the playoffs each of the two previous seasons.
"I hope we don't give the first two games away," Pacers coach Larry Brown said before the series began. "I hope we come out thinking we belong, that we're supposed to win a few."
The Pacers did have one thing going for them. Knicks center Patrick Ewing was nursing a leg injury, and had not played up to par in the first-round series with Cleveland.
"Look out Pacers, the Iceman cometh," Ewing had joked as he sat in front of his locker, swaddled in ice bags, after the Knicks eliminated the Cavs.
Look out, indeed. Hammond was right. This wasn't going to be a series for the faint of heart.
An NBA playoff record 59 fouls were called in Game 1, breaking the record set by a four-overtime game. Nine technical fouls were whistled, six in the first 21 minutes, as well as a flagrant foul. The general air of testiness was most obvious in the third period when Charles Oakley fell into the Pacers bench after saving a ball from going out of bounds and Pacers guard Haywoode Workman grabbed his shorts to prevent him from going back on the court. Pacers forward Antonio Davis and Knicks guard Derek Harper squared off moments later after Harper gave Davis a hard foul underneath the Pacers' basket to prevent a layup and Davis responded aggressively. Both had picked up technical fouls in the first half, and were ejected by a not-yet-bald Joey Crawford. On the next play, Rik Smits hit a jumper over his right shoulder from the left baseline to give the Pacers a nine-point lead late with just over three minutes left in the quarter.
The Pacers had a chance to push that lead into double figures, but Derrick McKey missed a turnaround jumper over Oakley and John Starks came back with a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound to make it a six-point game. The lead was down to three at the end of the third period, and New York took control in the fourth. The outcome appeared safely in hand after Greg Anthony hit two foul shots with 18.7 seconds left to give it a 105-99 lead. Brown would admit later he thought there was no chance for a comeback.
Miller to that point was having a sub-par game, hitting just 5-of-16 shots, including 1-of-5 3-pointers. He had tried to heat up the atmosphere a few times, such as by staring at Lee while running downcourt after hitting a 3-pointer from the left corner in the third quarter. Lee had played his role, too, such as by standing and waving a towel after Miller missed a foul shot with just over two minutes remaining.
Still, the Pacers offense had stalled.
"Pacer offense … not disciplined enough, not hungry enough, not sharp enough to get Reggie Miller the shots he needs … " Walton said as the Pacers took the court for the final 18.7.
And then everything changed, instantly, dramatically and forever. Miller, standing in the foul lane, stepped up behind Ewing and then cut to the 3-point line on the left wing as Mark Jackson prepared to inbound the ball. Starks was guarding him, but ran outside an unintentional screen set by Dale Davis, who was cutting away from the ball toward the baseline. That gave Miller time to catch Jackson's inbound pass, turn right and nail a 3-pointer over Starks' outstretched hand with 16.4 seconds left.
"Miller for three … and he got it!" Hammond said. "Reggie Miller with a clutch trey, and it's 105-102!"
Miller was guarding Starks as the Knicks prepared to inbound the ball from the left baseline, but as Starks ran toward the right baseline, Miller turned and got his feet tangled with Anthony, who was curling to look for an opening to receive Anthony Mason's inbound pass. Anthony fell as Mason began to pass him the ball, but it was too late for Mason to abort. His forward momentum was carrying him inbounds and the Knicks were out of timeouts – thanks mostly to Oakley, who had called three of them to preserve possessions while falling out of bounds. Mason had no choice but to loft the ball up for grabs. It floated to Miller, who instantly turned and took one staccato dribble back to nearly the exact place from which he had just hit the previous 3-pointer. He spun left and hit another one, all in one motion, even more cleanly than he had made the first one.
"And a steal!" Hammond proclaimed. "Miller retreats to the 3-point line and hits again!"
"Tie game!" Walton declared.
Miller's second shot was a display of quick thinking, court awareness and clock management, all compressed into one deadly smart bomb. The expression "presence of mind" was invented for moments like that. He later would explain his decision to head for the 3-point line as a desire to "drive a stake through their heart." But it appeared as if his heroics were going to be wasted when Sam Mitchell intentionally fouled Starks on the next inbounds pass.
"No need to foul in that situation!" Walton scolded.
Mitchell apparently thought the Pacers were still trailing and needed to stop the clock. It could have been a game-costing gaffe, but turned into a blessing when the shell-shocked Starks – a 74-percent foul shooter that season – missed both of his attempts with 13.2 seconds left. The rebound of the second miss was tipped out to Ewing, who missed a fading 10-footer off the back of the rim. That rebound landed fatefully in Miller's hands in the foul lane and he was fouled immediately by Starks, who swiped upward at the ball and caught Miller's arm.
There were 7.5 seconds left – 8.9 fewer than when Miller had hit the first of his consecutive 3-pointers. Miller hit both free throws. He didn't bother to look to his left at Lee after either one; he was all business this time. Again without a timeout, the Knicks had to rush the ball upcourt and improvise. The left-handed Anthony was forced to his right by Miller, lost his footing in New York's halfcourt and fell to the floor as the buzzer sounded. It was an appropriate ending, providing a literal finish to the Knicks' collapse.
Miller wasn't about to let such a historic occasion go quietly. He thrust his first into the air and began shouting as he ran to the Pacers' locker room. "Choke artists! Choke artists!" He didn't know it at the time, but he was writing the next day's back-page headline for the city's two tabloids, the Post and the Daily News. Newsday, slightly less reliant on shock value, went simply with "Choke!" The staid New York Times, meanwhile, settled for "Miller Makes Sure Final Seconds Last Too Long for Knicks."
Miller didn't back down after the sweat dried, either. He told reporters the Pacers were "greedy," and talked optimistically of a sweep. He then poured more fuel on the flames in a conversation with a New York Post columnist.
"They did choke," Miller said. "How else do you lose a six-point lead with 16.4 seconds left? What are they going to do now, make me eat my words? What are they doing to do, hit me harder than they already do? We've got big bodies, too. We're not intimidated. Those days are over.
"...the Knicks are the biggest prima donnas I know. They think they're God's gift to basketball. They might respect the Bulls and Magic, but they definitely don't respect us. The reality is, I don't care about the Knicks' feelings. If they don't like what I said, (bleep) 'em."
The game alone made for a great story, but it didn't end there. In some respects, it was only the beginning. There were league-wide and world-wide repercussions to follow.
The Pacers didn't sweep as Miller hoped, but did go on to win the series by taking Game 7 in the Garden after Ewing, still hampered by his leg injury, missed what would have been a game-tying layup at the buzzer. The Pacers went on to play Orlando in the conference finals, but lost in seven games. The Knicks, meanwhile, took a bigger blow to the midsection when coach Pat Riley faxed in his resignation on June 15, turning down a reported contract offer of $3 million per season. He wanted control of personnel matters and perhaps a share of ownership, but had been denied.
He moved on to become coach and team president of the Miami Heat, and went on to build teams that won three NBA championships. But one has to wonder what might have been had Miller not beat the Knicks in Game 1. The Knicks probably would have won the series, and might have had enough experience and savvy to beat Orlando in the conference finals to set up a rematch with Houston for the championship. If all that happens, maybe Riley isn't as eager to leave New York, or perhaps Knicks management bows to his demands and the Heat are left to take a completely different path. As it turned out, the Knicks hired Don Nelson to replace Riley, but Nelson was fired after 59 games and replaced by Jeff Van Gundy. They reached the Finals in 1999, but fell into gradual decline and have yet to regain a long-term footing. Most likely, their future would have been much better had Riley stayed.
What's more certain is the impact Miller had on fans around the world. His 25-point fourth quarter the previous year had marked his grand debut on the international stage. His outlandish Game 1 feat in '95 sealed his status as a worldwide icon. At that point Miller became a uniformed metaphor for the underdog, the skinny, small-market David, felling the giant metropolis with a couple of flings of his slingshot.
Asian fans in particular related to him, and many are still Pacers fans because of Miller. Several flew to the United States during Miller's final season with the team to take advantage of the final opportunity to see him play in person, either in Indianapolis or on the West Coast. One, Reggie Duan, from China, legally changed his name. Another, Holick Lee, also from China, started a website, www.chinapacers.com. He traveled to Washington D.C. to watch the Pacers play in 2002 and has flown to Indianapolis twice for games in recent seasons. He gathered some Pacers fans in a local park in his hometown of Guangzhou in 2011 to re-create some of Miller's classic playoff moments, which you can see here:
Miller's 8.9-second storyline also won over a boy in Japan, Yu Sakagami. He was so inspired by the game he became "a crazy Pacers fan" and picked up the pace on his English studies so he could learn more about Miller and the Pacers. His grades in English improved dramatically, and he became a translator.
"I have no idea what I would be doing now if I didn't see the game," Sakagami says.
Sakagami flew to Indianapolis to attend his first Pacers game this past season, spending about a month's income to do so.
"Even now, my motivation to work hard every day is going to Indianapolis once a year and my dream is still meeting Reggie and telling him how he changed my life," he said.
Miller's appeal to Asian fans, Holick and Sakagami agree, relates to the fact he succeeded from a foundation of hard work and self-discipline rather than supreme size or athleticism. They also respect his loyalty to the Pacers, for whom he played 18 seasons. The younger fans also were drawn to his brashness, his willingness to stand up to all of New York without flinching.
"Here, very few pro-athletes have such a strong character and we don't really have a concept of 'heel' except for pro wrestling," Sakagami said. "His trash-talking was something new to us, and it looked so cool to some of us."
Newark Star-Ledger reporter Dave D'Allesandro, who was sitting courtside at the Garden that day, says Miller's 25-point fourth quarter, with all the trash talk and stare-downs with Lee, had been the moment Miller "turned the ultimate macho stage into something suitable for nerd cool." The 8-in-8.9-sequence, he believes, only provided an exclamation mark to the allegory. It's one that should be familiar to basketball fans from Indiana. Miller's romps through the Garden were a less-cuddly version of the stories produced by Milan High School in 1954 and Butler University in 2010 and 2011: small taking on big without blinking – and sometimes winning.
"He was probably the first guy who would become known for using the three as a weapon of mass destruction, much more so than his regal peers, and it so happens to be the game's most exciting play," D'Allesandro said. "And, obviously, it would only grow in our imaginations because he did it with such a theatrical flair – popularizing the notion that the skinny (guy) can kick sand in the faces of the obnoxious bullies in the climactic scene."
Twenty years later, underdogs everywhere still celebrate that notion. And because most everyone views themselves as an underdog most of the time, and perhaps even feels a little faint of heart some of the time, the celebrations will be everlasting.
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in his next mailbag.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.