Nine Pacers Moments that Shaped the 1990s
The 1990s were a decade of fruition for the Pacers, a time when the labor of previous decades blossomed. The franchise didn't have to be saved by a telethon, as in 1977. It didn't have to be saved by a last-minute purchase by Mel and Herb Simon, as in 1983. General manager Donnie Walsh had constructed a core in the 1980s by drafting Chuck Person, Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, and continued to tinker until he put together a string of championship contenders led by two Hall of Famers, Larry Brown and Larry Bird.
The 90s, taken from start to finish, brought the franchise's greatest display of sustained excellence. The 1970s brought three championships and two other ABA finals appearances, all from 1970-75, followed by five consecutive losing seasons and the threat of collapse under severe financial burdens. The 80s were mostly dismal, with just two short-lived playoff appearances. The first decade of the new millennium was hit and miss. But the 90s brought playoff appearances in every season but one (the injury-plagued 1996-97 campaign), five trips to the conference finals, the only trip to the NBA Finals and the best winning percentage (58%) in franchise history for any decade.
The decade began with stylish uniforms designed by Olympic sprinting gold medalist Florence Griffith-Joyner, which became known as the Flo-Jos, and ended in classic pinstripes. Two players, Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, played in each season of the decade, and finished their careers as the top two scorers in franchise history, respectively. The Pacers moved during the decade, too, playing in Market Square Arena before moving at the start of the 1999-2000 season to Conseco Fieldhouse, as it was called then.
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Ultimately, it was the decade in which, more than any other in franchise history, the greatest drama occurred on the court. The Pacers didn't win a championship, but they left behind many indelible memories that will live forever among the fans.
Here they are in chronological order: the Top Nine of the 1990s.
1. Celtics taken to the limit (1991)
Fifteen years after joining the NBA in 1976, the Pacers had virtually nothing to show for themselves in the playoffs. They were swept in a best-of-three series by Philadelphia in 1981, then lost to Atlanta 3-1 in 1987.
The first whiff of postseason success in the Pacers' NBA history came in 1991, after they finished 41-41. Their first-round opponent was Boston, a team in transition as the core members of its three championships teams of the Eighties -- Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale -- were winding down their careers. A 130-118 victory in Boston Garden in Game 2 lit a spark, offering hope for an upset of the second-seeded Celtics.
Chuck Person, Walsh's first draft pick upon taking over as general manager in 1986, scored 39 points in that game, hitting 7-of-10 3-pointers. The Pacers dropped Game 3 back in Indianapolis as Person scored just six points in a passive performance, but he rallied in Game 4.
The day before the game, a Friday morning, he stuck his head in coach Bob Hill's office and said, "Good morning, Coach. It's a good day in Zimbabwe."
Translated, that meant Person was ready to go. He followed up by scoring 30 points, including 12 in a row while hitting five straight shots in the second half and engaging Bird in trash talking to lead a 116-113 victory.
Person's bravado – and shot-making – was the inspiration for the loudest crowd ever heard at a Pacers' game. By the end, fans were standing to watch the action. Person recalls being in a timeout huddle and not being able to hear the buzzer to announce it was time to return to the court.
"I never experienced a crowd like that before in my life," he said after that game. "Tonight, when we got down they stayed right behind us. Keep going, keep going. That was fueling my fire. I said I'm not going to let this team down, or the franchise, or the fans. I was going to do whatever I had to do to help this team win … even if it meant playing a little defense."
The Pacers lost Game 5 back in Boston, 124-121. Person scored 32 points, but the game is remembered now for offering one of the final career highlights for Bird, who retired a year later. Bird hit his head on the court after chasing a loose ball and had to leave the game, but made a dramatic return to lead the Celtics to victory with 32 points.
It was a loss, but still qualified as a breakthrough for a Pacers franchise that was starved for any morsel of playoff excitement. More than ever, fans had hope for better days.
2. Scott leads by example with historic 3-pointer (1994)
Better days didn't come for three more years, however.
The Pacers were swept by Boston in the opening round of the 1992 playoffs and lost to New York 3-1 in the first round in 1993. By the 1994 postseason, however, they had a new coach and a new direction.
Person had been traded to resolve chemistry issues, and Larry Brown had been hired as coach. Brown, who had been Walsh's backcourt mate at North Carolina, took over the team for the 1993-94 season and brought instant credibility and a time-tested approach.
He quickly convinced Walsh to trade Detlef Schrempf for Derrick McKey to improve the defense. He boosted Smits' confidence after it had languished under the previous coach, Bob Hill, and made sure Smits got the ball. He benefited from an emerging power forward in Dale Davis, and a bonafide star in Miller. And, he was given a veteran member of championship teams to come off the bench.
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Byron Scott, signed as a free agent in December 16 games into the season, had played on championships teams for the Lakers, and been in the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons. He was 32 years old when he joined the Pacers, but told his new teammates he fully intended to continue playing in the postseason. And then he backed up his bravado.
The Pacers were down 17 points late in the second quarter of Game 1 of their opening-round series in Orlando, and still trailed by eight entering the fourth period. They worked their way to a tie, but Shaquille O'Neal tipped in Donald Royal's missed shot to give the Magic an 88-86 lead with 25.7 seconds left.
Miller missed a 3-pointer on the Pacers' next possession, but Dale Davis grabbed the rebound and passed out to Scott. Scott fed Miller, who began driving from the 3-point line, drew a defender, and fed Scott on the right wing for an open 3-pointer. Scott nailed it, with two seconds remaining.
"Reggie made a great play," Brown said afterward. "He's been doing this all year. As great a shooter as he is, he's very unselfish. Byron made a big shot, but I guess he's made big shots before."
It marked the first time the Pacers had ever led an NBA playoff series. They went on to sweep the Magic, then eliminated Atlanta 4-2 to set up a series with New York in the conference finals. And, unselfish or not, Miller was about to take over the spotlight.
3. Miller's time comes (1994)
Miller was an seven-year veteran by the time the 1994 playoffs rolled around. He had produced big games in the postseason, but no moments that remained ingrained in anyone's memory.
That changed in 1994. Scott's 3-pointer propelled the Pacers all the way to the conference finals, where they met the Knicks. The series was 2-2 when it returned to Madison Square Garden for Game 5. The Pacers trailed by 12 points entering the final period, and appeared headed for another loss in a building where they rarely had won.
Miller, however, unloaded, scoring 25 points in the final period. He finished with 39 points on 14-of-26 shooting, including 6-of-11 3-pointers, to lead a 93-86 victory.
He opened the quarter with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Then added another 3-pointer from the right wing, directly in front of the Knicks bench. Then a 14-footer near the foul line off a fake.
"Reggie Miller is on fire!" Marv Albert declared on the national telecast.
That fire was about to become a raging inferno.
Miller followed with a two-pointer from the left corner, with his right foot on the 3-point line, then a long 3-pointer a full step behind the 3-point line, then another 3-pointer on the right wing, then a two-pointer on the right wing, again with his foot on the line.
"Just an astounding shooting exhibition being put on by Reggie Miller!" Albert declared.
He closed with another 3-pointer on the right wing with defender John Starks draped over him, and four free throws.
It wasn't just the incredible shooting display, however. Miller added to the theatre by staring at diehard Knicks fan Spike Lee after each made shot, even wrapping his hands around his own neck at one point to indicate the Knicks were choking. Lee, sitting in the front row, delighted in taunting opposing players, and Miller was delighting in having the last word. Lee could only sit and watch in silence.
Little did Miller know he would inspire fans all over the world with that display. He was acting out a David-versus-Goliath fable, the skinny guy from the small market team stepping into the den of the world's largest media market and felling the giant.
The Pacers failed to capitalize on their 3-2 series lead, losing the next game back at Market Square Arena and then Game 7 at the Garden. But Miller had risen to a new level. And, so had the Pacers.
4. 8.9 seconds that will live forever (1995)
Miller's 25-point quarter seemed impossible to top for worldwide impact, but he did it the following season.
The Pacers went 52-30 in Brown's second year as coach, then swept Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. That set up a rematch with the Knicks, this time in the second round. And this time, Miller wasted no time injecting a lightning bolt into the series.
The Knicks appeared to have the game in hand with a six-point lead with 18.7 seconds left, but Miller – who had made just 5-of-16 shots to that point -- hit a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left off an inbound pass from Mark Jackson coming out of a timeout. He then collected Anthony Mason's stray inbound pass after Greg Anthony fell, took a staccato dribble back to the 3-point line, turned and hit another shot.
Sam Mitchell fouled Starks on the ensuing inbound pass, which would have been a major mistake had Starks not missed both free throw attempts. The rebound of the second miss was tipped out to Patrick Ewing, who missed a 10-footer. Miller grabbed that rebound, was fouled and hit both foul shots with 7.5 seconds remaining – giving him eight points in the 8.9 seconds since his first 3-pointer began the comeback.
The Pacers won the game. Unlike the previous season, they went on to win the series, too.
Miller didn't just provide the game heroics, he wrote the back page headline for the New York Post, too. Thrusting his fist into the air, he shouted "Choke artists! Choke artists!" as he ran to the Pacers locker room. Those words showed up in big, bold, black type the next morning.
With that, his giant-killing legacy was established.
5. Smits happens, Magic faked into a loss (1995)
Eliminating the Knicks was a franchise-turning moment. Radio voice Mark Boyle shouted "Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead!" when they clinched the Game 7 victory in New York, and for good reason given the Pacers' consistent failures in the Garden.
Problem was, they had to board a plane and fly straight to Orlando to begin another series two days later. The Magic had the NBA's second-best record (60-22) that season and were the conference's top-seeded team. Shaquille O'Neal, in his third NBA seasons, had led the league in scoring with a 29.3 average, along with 11.4 rebounds. Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, in his second season, was already an All-Star and averaged 20.9 points.
The Pacers dropped the first two games, but won Game 3 at Market Square Arena, setting up a crucial Game 4 on May 29 – one day after the Indianapolis 500. That was appropriate, because the game featured some heart-stopping final-lap passing.
The Pacers were poised to win with an 89-87 lead late in the game, but future Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw answered with a 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds left to give the Magic a 90-89 lead. Then Miller answered with a 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds remaining to regain the lead. Then Anfernee Hardaway answered with a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left to return the lead to Orlando.
That was just enough time for Smits to take McKey's sidecourt inbound pass, fake future Pacer assistant coach Tree Rollins into the air, and hit a 16-footer. The buzzer sounded before the ball fell through the net. There would be no answer to that one.
The Pacers went on to force Game 7 with a 27-point homecourt victory in Game 6, but collapsed in Orlando with a 24-point loss. Still, Smits' shot stood as a highlight for his 12-year career and the finishing touch to one of the most dramatic playoff games in NBA history.
6. Miller bumps off Jordan, delivers dagger to Bulls (1998)
Despite the frenzied postseason drama of Brown's first two seasons, the Pacers could not follow up. They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 1996 after Miller suffered a fractured orbital late in the season and then made a dramatic comeback for the Game 5 closeout against Atlanta. They lost that one, more disrupted than inspired by Miller's return. They failed to make the playoffs in 1997 after Smits and McKey each missed about half of the season with injuries.
Larry Bird's arrival as head coach brought new life and hope to the franchise, however, and began a new era. The Pacers won 58 games his first season despite a 2-5 start, and then breezed through playoff victories over Cleveland and New York. That set up a conference finals matchup with defending champion Chicago, which had won 62 games.
The home team won each game in the series, which meant the Bulls won in seven. But Game 4 will stand out forever, thanks to another Miller-time moment.
Miller had scored 13 points in the final 4 minutes, 11 seconds to score 28 points and lead a Game 3 victory despite suffering a badly sprained ankle. He played with pain in Game 4, and struggled throughout. But with the Pacers trailing 94-93 with 2.9 seconds left, and taking the ball out of bounds right of their basket, he ran from the baseline to the 3-point line, bumped into Michael Jordan, turned left, took McKey's inbound pass, turned left again and in stride hit a 3-pointer.
"Unbelieeeeevable!" Boyle shouted. "Reggie hits the three with seven-tenths of a second to go!"
After the Bulls called timeout, Miller ran to the other end of the court and jumped up and down on his sore ankle, pirouetting while Smits ran over to slap his hand. Bird, however, knew better than to join in the celebration. The Bulls had enough time left to get off one last shot, and Jordan was available to take it. But Jordan's hanging, off-balance 3-pointer, with McKey flying at him from behind, hit the backboard, spun around the rim and fell out, preserving the Pacers' series-tying victory.
Yes, the Pacers lost the series. But Miller had won more hearts around the world with a giant-killing feat.
7. Travis saves his Best for last (2000)
The Pacers were favored by many to win the NBA championship in the 1999 lockout season. They had taken the Bulls to the limit, and Jordan had retired again (temporarily again). They wound up losing to New York in six games in the conference finals, a series marred by referee Jess Kersey's admittedly blown call that allowed Larry Johnson's game-winning four-point play in Game 3.
The 1999-00 season represented a last chance for many of them. Bird made it official before the season it would be his last as coach, and Miller, Jackson and Smits all were in the last year of their contract. A shakeup was inevitable.
The Pacers won 56 games during the regular season, most in the Eastern Conference, but met an improving Milwaukee team in the opening round. The Bucks won Game 2 at Conseco Fieldhouse, but the Pacers won Game 3 at Milwaukee after Miller donned a Superman T-shirt in pre-game warmups to send a message to his teammates. He followed through, but Milwaukee won Game 4, setting up the closeout game at the fieldhouse.
The Bucks clearly weren't intimidated, and refused to collapse under the burden of the Pacers' playoff experience and homecourt advantage. They led by 10 in the first half, by sixth in the fourth quarter and by three in the final three minutes. Other than Miller, the Pacers were struggling mightily to score, and Travis Best was struggling the most. He missed a driving layup in the final minute, with the Pacers trailing by a point. Davis mishandled the rebound, but the ball deflected off Bucks forward Glenn 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 that 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 time.
"I was surprised how wide open I was," he said later. "I just let it go."
Best was open partially because Milwaukee's defense was focused on Miller, who had scored 41 points, a Pacers' NBA playoff record, 18 of them in a 7 ½ minute stretch in the fourth quarter.
The Bucks still had time to win the game, but Earvin Johnson hit just 1-of-2 foul shots with 6.2 seconds left to make it a one-point game. They intentionally fouled Jalen Rose, and he missed both attempts, giving Milwaukee one last shot to win. Ray Allen, however, missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer.
It's difficult to imagine how different perceptions would be had Best missed that shot and the Pacers been eliminated in the first round by a lower-seeded team. Bird's coaching career would be viewed differently. So, too, would Walsh's decision not to break up the team after the previous year's playoff disappointment, as many had argued he should do.
"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."
8. Miller, Rose explode for 40 (2000)
The echoes of the screams from their Game 5 victory over Milwaukee had barely died down by the time the Pacers began their second-round series with Philadelphia two nights later. And Miller wasted no time reigniting them.
Davis controlled the opening tip to Smits, who turned right and fed a cutting Miller, who pulled up and hit a 3-pointer from the left wing. With The Fieldhouse rocking from start to finish, the Pacers rode the wave to a 108-91 victory.
Miller followed up his 41-point game against the Bucks with 40 in this one, 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. He was joined by Rose, who added 40 of his own by hitting 16-of-23 shots. They became the first set of teammates in Pacers' history to score 40 points or more in a game, and the fifth in NBA history to do it in a playoff game.
Rose needed a little help 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, after the game was in hand. Miller, the team's best foul shooter, normally was given that chore, but they wanted to restore Rose's confidence from the foul line. He hit all three.
Suddenly, a season that had nearly been snuffed out in the first round, was rolling again.
9. Finally, Miller sends Pacers to the Finals (2000)
The Pacers ran up a 3-0 lead on the 76ers in the second round, but ran into trouble in Game 4 in Philadelphia. Matt Geiger gave Miller a hard foul for the second game in a row, knocking him to the floor. Miller jumped up and took a swing at Geiger. He was kicked out of that game, and was suspended for the next game.
Philadelphia won both Miller-less games to pull within 3-2, but Miller closed out the Sixers in Game 5 back in Philly, which sent them to the conference finals against – who else? – the Knicks.
The Pacers owned homecourt advantage, and took a 3-2 lead into Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. It was the perfect place, Miller told his teammates before the game, to get the victory that would send them to the NBA Finals for the first time and exorcise the demons of the 1999 debacle.
Miller had been uncharacteristically quiet the previous season against New York, and hit just 3-of-18 shots when they were closed out in Game 6 loss in the Garden. He went back to his traditional postseason mojo this time, declaring at the press conference before Game 1 of the series that he "hated" the Knicks.
He kept up that attitude throughout the series, and finished off the Knicks with another classic Garden stroll. He scored 34 points, 25 in the second half, 17 in the fourth, in the Pacers' 93-80 victory.
The Pacers went on to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. They put up a fight before losing in six games, but had gone where no Pacers team had gone before in closing out the most dramatic decade in franchise history.
Top nine off-court moments of the 90s
1. Florence Griffith-Joyner designs uniforms that give an improving Pacers team a new look for a new decade. A modernized logo is unveiled as well
2. General manager drafts Donnie Walsh drafts Antonio Davis in the second round with the 45th overall pick in the 1990 draft, getting a key contributor to future success
3. Walsh drafts Dale Davis with the 13th pick in 1991, adding another macho element to the team, and a role player who would remain vital throughout the decade
4. Chuck Person is traded to Minnesota in 1992 for LaSalle Thompson and Pooh Richardson, creating room for Reggie Miller to take the lead role and for Detlef Schrempf to move into the starting lineup
5. Coming off four consecutive seasons in which the Pacers had finished within two games of .500, Walsh hires college buddy Larry Brown to coach the team in 1993, introducing a new level of success
6. General manager Donnie Walsh signs Byron Scott as a free agent after the 1993-94 season begins, bringing a veteran and championship mindset to a team that had yet to win, or even lead, a playoff series
7. Walsh trades Pooh Richardson, Malik Sealy and the draft rights to Eric Piatkowski for Mark Jackson on draft day in 1994, upgrading the point guard position and bringing in the perfect complement to Reggie Miller
8. Walsh trades Jackson to Denver in a deal that brings Jalen Rose to the Pacers. And then, during the following season, sends odds and ends to Denver for Jackson – in essence adding Rose for the price of loaning out Jackson for less than a season
9. After Brown completes four seasons on a down note, Larry Bird is hired to rejuvenate the franchise, and take the franchise to yet another level
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