He was the best player on the floor for the first 46 minutes, but then, as if following a script, Rik Smits stepped aside and left the unforgettable final scene to Indiana Pacer teammate Reggie Miller. There was, after all, no one else who could play the part. When it comes to going one-on-one against the city of New York, no one does it better than Miller.
Smits, the Pacer center, had played the game of his postseason life before fouling out with 1:40 remaining in Indiana's improbable 107-105 victory over the New York Knicks in Sunday's Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. He had scored a playoff career-high 34 points and held Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' All-Star center, to 11. He had kept the Pacers in the game, and he had set the stage for the most stunning comeback since John Travolta's. Then he went to the bench and watched New York take a six-point lead with 18.7 seconds to go. It was Miller time.
"We were pretty down," said Smits afterward. "But it's never over till it's over. I've seen weirder things happen."
Well, he has been playing with Miller for seven years now, so maybe he has seen weirder things. But Miller's theatrics Sunday were witnessed by millions of people, most of whom no doubt are still trying to figure out what they saw. Miller made two three-pointers in the span of 3.1 seconds (the second trey after he intercepted an inbounds pass) to tie the score at 105-105. After the Knicks' John Starks missed two free throws, Miller won the game by hitting two foul shots with 7.5 seconds remaining. And he did it all while yapping at Knick court jester Spike Lee and gloating in the faces of the stunned New York players. One of these days Miller really should learn to come out of his shell.
Before he even left the floor, Miller suggested to the NBC postgame audience that the Pacers might sweep the Knicks in this series (which continued Tuesday night in New York), and as he ran down the tunnel to the Indiana locker room, he shouted, "Choke artists! Choke artists!" In the end it was hard to argue with him. Knick forward Anthony Mason set up Miller's game-tying three-pointer with that errant inbounds pass ("I didn't know he was going to throw it right into my hands," said Miller), whereupon Miller, demonstrating extraordinary aplomb, dashed behind the three-point stripe and, in one motion, plunged a dagger through New York's heart. Then Starks clanked his free throws, Ewing missed a 10-footer with 9.9 seconds left, and point guard Greg Anthony fell down while taking the ball toward the hoop in the final seconds.
Meanwhile, Miller, who ended up with 31 points, had done most of his bumbling and brick-tossing before crunch time. He struggled from the outside for most of the game, during which he went 7 for 18, but he had the confidence of a Southern sheriff as he strode to the line for his decisive free throws. Spike could have been sitting on the rim with Woody and Soon-Yi on his lap, and Miller still would have drained the pair. "I love playing here in the Garden," says Miller, who memorably torched the Knicks for 25 fourth-quarter points there in Game 5 of last season's Eastern Conference finals. "The atmosphere, the media, the fans—I love how they dog us out. It's a great rivalry."
Miller may have been the most animated Pacer, but he wasn't the only visitor who relished the Garden intensity. The 7'4", Dutch-born Smits, who went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (about 90 miles north of Manhattan), and still lives in that region in the off-season, had his problems with the officials and with Ewing in last year's playoffs, and he was determined to come up big this week. He was virtually unstoppable when his teammates got him the ball, making 13 of 19 from the field and 8 of 9 from the line. "Reggie's still our main guy," said Smits, "but there are going to be games when I have to step up a little bit."
Rik, however, docs it a little differently than Reggie. While Miller made two three-pointers in three seconds, Smits hasn't made one in his seven-year career. Miller likes to talk trash. Smits doesn't even like to talk. While Miller courts Spike Lee, Smits's favorite cinematic figure is the Road Runner. Miller prefers new limos. Smits likes to restore old cars. They are the ultimate NBA odd couple, but Indiana fans love them both.
At least they do now. In the past, another big difference between Miller and Smits was that Pacer fans loved Reggie, but they weren't so crazy about Rik. "It's never been easy for Rik," says Miller. "Because of his size and how high he was drafted"—No. 2 overall in 1988—"the fans expected something spectacular. And sometimes they haven't been very patient."
During his early days with Indiana, Smits was booed, bashed and blamed for everything but the traffic around the Speedway on race day. Even Smits's teammates wondered whether he had the heart to carry the perennially mediocre Pacers to the next level. "The feeling I got when I took the job was that the players always blamed Rik for their problems," says Larry Brown, who's in his second season as Pacer coach. "If we lost a game, it was, 'Well, if Rik would've done this, or if Rik would've done that....' They never said, 'You know, maybe it's us.' "