Work in Sports
NEW YORK (Ticker) -- It was only appropriate that Reggie Miller shot the Indiana Pacers to their first trip to the NBA Finals. In doing so, he engraved the epitaph of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Miller is the most infamous villain at "The World's Most Famous Arena" and tonight was no different as his flurry of 3-pointers and 17 fourth-quarter points led the Pacers to a 93-80 victory over the Knicks in Game Six of the Eastern Conference finals.
Having lost in the conference finals four of the previous six seasons -- including last year's disappointing six-game ousting at the hands of the Knicks -- Miller indicated before tonight's game that it would take the twist of a dagger to take the life out of the resilient Knicks.
He came armed with a sickle tonight. The thin 6-7 sharpshooter scored 34 points on 10-of-19 shooting, including five 3-pointers in a row during a decisive stretch spanning the third and fourth periods.
Miller also drained all nine of his free throws and scored the game's final four points from the line before leaping into the arms of teammate Jalen Rose as the rest of the Pacers celebrated their maiden voyage to the championship round.
"If the league called us up and let us choose the venue where we could win the Eastern Conference championship, we would have all said Madison Square Garden and against New York," Miller said. "This is our home away from home."
Indiana coach Larry Bird indicated earlier this postseason that his lone remaining goal in the game was to watch his veteran players' faces as they realized the dream of reaching the NBA Finals. Bird got to watch as Miller, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Jalen Rose and Chris Mullin took turns exchanging hugs along the bench as time wound down on the Knicks.
"It is a great thing that happened to our veteran players that have been around the league and battled so hard over the years and never had an opportunity to play in the Finals," said Bird, who has already indicated that this would be his final season on the bench. "This is their day. I feel so good for Reggie and Chris and Mark and Sam and all the older guys that paid dues every day and have an opportunity to win a world championship and it is a great, great feeling for me."
The Pacers await the winner of the Los Angeles Lakers-Portland Trail Blazers Western Conference finals series.
Trailing 50-41 at the half, New York made what would be its final push at the start of the third quarter. Latrell Sprewell and Patrick Ewing combined to score the Knicks' first 19 points of the period as New York turned a nine-point deficit into a 60-57 lead with 2:13 remaining.
After Travis Best and Allan Houston exchanged baskets, Miller began to insert his dagger. He drilled a 26-footer with 25 seconds left that forged a 62-62 tie entering the final period.
"Our offense was stagnant and I told Mark to run every single play through me," Miller said. "I had to have the ball in my hands. If we were going to go to Game Seven, we were going with me shooting the ball every time."
Miller, who has stunned the Garden fans into silnce on more than one occasion in his career, watched his team again fall behind by three as Sprewell opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer.
Undaunted, Miller, a 12-year veteran and career-long Pacer, followed Austin Croshere's free throws by swishing one from beyond the arc, putting Indiana ahead to stay, 67-65, with 10:30 remaining.
The brash guard followed two more free throws from Best by nailing another 3-pointer, opening a 72-65 cushion and forcing New York coach Jeff Van Gundy to call a timeout with a hush falling over the usually raucous Garden.
"Reggie was awesome tonight and didn't want it to go to a Game Seven," Bird said. "We got down three points and Reggie tied it and it was a big boost for us. Reggie is always talking about the demons in New York. And after what happened last year, we felt we had a good enough opportunity to get to the Finals and didn't really get there."
"Game Seven would have been too much pressure for us," Miller added. "We wanted to end it here. Tonight was our Game Seven."
Charlie Ward made two free throws and Ewing made 1-of-2 at the line to pull New York within 72-68. But Miller ended Indiana's three-minute scoring drought for his team and beat the shot clock by drilling another 3-pointer before hitting two free throws to make it 77-68 with 5:25 to play.
"I thought (Miller) made probably the biggest shot of the game," New York coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We were down four and he made a late 3 at the shot clock. He has been a great player for a long time and he came up and we had done a good job on him for most of the series. This game is one where he got away from us a little bit."
The Knicks would draw no closer than seven the rest of the way as Best and Miller closed them out at the line, denying New York its second straight Finals appearance.
Having lost the conference finals to New York in 1994, Orlando in 1995, Chicago in 1998 and New York again last year, Miller and his teammates basked in the glow of tearing down the barrier on the Garden floor.
In order to inspire himself and his teammates in the playoffs, Miller has done everything from donning a Superman T-shirt to telling whoever would listen how much he hated New York. But tonight, he won gracefully and spoke eloquently of his adversaries.
"You have to hate someone, there's no way to beat them unless you hate them," Miller said. "But New York was very gracious in upsetting us last year. You never want to rub (it) in anyone's face."
Jalen Rose scored 11 points and Best scored eight of his 10 over the final 12 minutes for Indiana, which won in New York for the first time in five visits this season.
"It feels great," Best said. "We had a lot of down moments in this locker room. This is a tough team to beat in Madison Square Garden. I figure it's that much sweeter to win here and celebrate in this locker room because we've had some down moments here."
Sprewell scored 32 points and Ewing added 17 for the Knicks, who are not knotted at 3-3 with Indiana in playoff series over the last eight seasons. Despite his 10-point third quarter, Ewing suffered the indignity of being in the lineup for all four Knicks losses, while New York won the only two contests he sat out after suffering a strained tendon in his right foot in Game Two.
The 15-year veteran remains without what has been an elusive NBA title.
"Very disappointed. I mean, well, they're all the same," Ewing responded when asked if the sting from this series defeat was any worse than any of his long list of previous postseason eliminations. "We didn't play well enough down the stretch to win. We came close. We fought back. We had opportunities, we just didn't execute to take advantage."
Larry Johnson, who lit up Indiana for 25 points in Games Two and Four, managed just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting as his "L" sign remained dormant for the final two games of the series.
Houston buried the Pacers with 32 points in Game Six here last season but managed just 10 on dreadful 5-of-15 shooting.
Jackson, a New York native and former Knick, had nine points and four assists and fellow title-starved veteran Davis grabbed 16 rebounds.
"It really wouldn't be doing any justice to try to put it in words," Jackson said of his first Finals trip. "It is an unbelievable feeling. Reggie and I have been talking about this for years and years and time and time again and keeping each other up all night long. Now to have the opportunity to go ahead and represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals is absolutely phenomenal."
Davis also scored nine points for the Pacers, who shot just 39 percent (29-of 74) but held a 42-34 rebounding edge and seemed to outwork the Knicks all night.
"It definitely was a great feeling," Davis said. "I've been here over the years and I hadn't quite gotten there to an NBA Finals. I've been in a lot of conference finals and just to win it here definitely meant a lot to me and my teammates."
The Knicks shot 42 percent (31-of-74) and never opened a lead larger than three points.