David Copperfield notwithstanding, most mortals are unable to make large objects vanish. And yet last weekend—poof!—Shaquille O'Neal, the Orlando Magic's 7'1", 301-pound leviathan center, did a disappearing act in the NBA playoffs thanks to the legerdemain of the Indiana Pacers, for years among the league's merest of mortals.
On Monday the Pacers completed a sweep of Orlando in their best-of-five, opening-round series with a 99-86 Game 3 victory at Indianapolis's Market Square Arena. Indiana's first two wins had come, grittily, at the Orlando Arena—the Shack that Shaq built. In last Thursday's Game 1, the Magic were snuffed 89-88 by a last-shot, three-point sleight-of-hand from erstwhile Los Angeles Laker Byron Scott; in Game 2 on Saturday, they fell 103-101, having been done in by O'Neal's game-long foul trouble and a questionable last-minute, 24-second-violation call. And faster than you can say "Abracadabra!" the NBA's MVP (Most Visible Player) had faded from the postseason.
"We never expected this," said splendiferous Orlando rookie point guard Anfernee Hardaway of the precipitous playoff plummet after the Magic's carpet ride of a regular season. A fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, a team-record 50 wins and a road show (dubbed the Shaq Attaq) that sold out more venues than anyone not singing Evergreen were all icing to the Magic's primary goal: making the playoffs. But suddenly Orlando's postseason was turning into a postmortem. "If somebody had told me a week ago that we'd be down 0-2, I'd have laughed at him," Hardaway said after Saturday's defeat. "It was as if the Pacers were rubbing Aladdin's lamp."
But Hardaway wasn't being done in by any genie; rather he was learning the same nasty lesson that so many playoff rookies before him have painfully absorbed: The NBA postseason is a whole new show. And sometimes it's rated NC-17 (for excessive violence). Last Saturday, in Game 2 of another Eastern Conference series, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat (who would end the weekend deadlocked 1-1) literally went at each other's throats. A spat between the Hawks' Duane Ferrell and the Heat's Grant Long escalated into an ugly bench-clearing brawl, resulting in three ejections, three suspensions, $155,000 in fines and a broken right hand for one unlucky participant, Miami assistant coach Alvin Gentry. And in San Antonio, where the Utah Jazz split two games with the Spurs in a first-round Western Conference series, manic Spur Dennis Rodman was possessed by an all-for-one-and-free-for-all spirit, having at Utah's Tom Chambers, Karl Malone and John Stockton. Rodman was fined $10,000 and was suspended for one game.
By comparison, the Magic-Pacer games were pacific, but to Hardaway—whose sublime 31-point effort in Game 2 was one point shy of his best as a pro—and his teammates they were nonetheless jarring. Who would have expected Indiana to pack an early knockout punch? After all, these were the same Pacers who, in the four seasons before this one, had amassed a 164-164 record, and who were 0 for 6 as an NBA franchise in postseason series.
But the Indiana players clearly are not students of history. "Our chances are as good as anybody else's," forward Sam Mitchell told The Indianapolis News early last week. "Right now, picking a favorite to come out of the East, I'd pick us." And his confidence wasn't wildly misplaced, given that the Pacers, after a 16-23 start in 1993-94, went 31-12 from Jan. 29 onward. Only the Seattle SuperSonics, the league's best regular-season team, had a better record over that span. Indiana had its most victories (47) and its longest winning streak (eight, to close out the season by an average margin of 19.3 points) in its 18 seasons in the NBA. The Pacers also had Reggie Miller, arguably the league's top marksman. "He's the best pure shooter I've ever seen," says coach Larry Brown, who's completing his first year in Indiana after tours with four other NBA teams.
There are those who consider Miller, the Pacers' alltime leading scorer after only seven seasons with the team, the best pure bull-shooter in the NBA. He has compared himself with Billy Joel and Michael Jackson ("We're all entertainers"). He especially likes to play the role of taunting villain in hostile arenas, while blithely maintaining that it's all just an act. "People misinterpretate the things I do," Miller said to NBC's Peter Vecsey last Saturday before launching into that most chic of declensions, the Third Person Unctuous. "As long as Reggie Miller goes out there and plays like Reggie Miller, the Pacers have a chance." Against the Magic, Reggie Miller did indeed play like Reggie Miller, scoring 24 points in Game 1 and 32 in Game 2, tops for Indiana in both games.
Miller is legit: an All-Star, a Dream Team Her. But what about the other Pacers? Or, to quote another NBC mainstay, Jerry Seinfeld, "Who are these people?"
They are relatively anonymous—and tend to come at you in bunches:
•The Epcot Center: "Our whole emphasis is to figure out ways to play Shaq," Brown said before the opener. The Magic Mountain had scored a then-career-high 49 points versus the Pacers early this season, getting most of his baskets against 7'4" center Rik Smits. In the playoffs Brown threw a multinational, multilingual, multitalented force at O'Neal, comprising Smits, the 6'7" Mitchell, 6'9" rookie Antonio Davis, 6'11" Dale Davis and 6'10" Derrick McKey.