In mid-April, when the playoff matchups were still hazy and Eastern Conference teams were jockeying for postseason position, Indiana Pacers veteran Reggie Miller developed a habit of scanning the standings for the Philadelphia 76ers. "That team," he'd say, "is the one that scares me."
His trepidation was understandable. Philadelphia was the antithesis of Indiana: young, brash, athletic, impatient. The 76ers' journey was just beginning, while the Pacers, whose starters are an average of 33 years old, were aching to cross the finish line before their time had passed. Indiana's hopes resided in a deep roster of reliable contributors, while the Sixers lived—and died—by the mercurial talents of Allen Iverson, a 23-year-old guard who would lead the NBA in scoring and give fits to defensive gurus bent on stopping him.
Miller, who has nailed as many heart-stopping postseason game-winners as anyone in league history, identified with the fearless Iverson. So when the teams' second-round date was set, he warned his fellow Pacers, "We're in for the fight of our lives."
Who would have guessed that the bout would be so brief? Indiana delivered the KO in four swift punches, sweeping Philly by daring Iverson to single-handedly beat them. Iverson was alternately exquisite (35 points in Game 1 on 13 of 26 shooting) and excessive (32 points in Game 3 on 13 of 33 shooting), but he was always exciting. When Indy "exorcised the demon," as Miller put it, with an 89-86 win in Game 4 on Sunday in Philadelphia, the Pacers resembled a band of weary prizefighters. "I know it was only four games," said Miller, "but it felt more like six or seven."
The 76ers may have been overmatched in experience and poise, but they were well stocked with perseverance. No Indiana lead was too big as long as Iverson and backcourt partner Eric Snow were on the floor, stalking the Pacers with bottomless energy and verve. No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit, but as Iverson said before Game 4, "We might as well be the first."
The Sixers weren't, because there's a steely single-mindedness to Indiana that won't tolerate letdowns. The Pacers have advanced to the conference finals for the fourth time in six years, and they're the only unbeaten team in the playoffs. Indiana has restaked its claim to being a postseason juggernaut by regaining its focus and its defensive resolve, a stunning reversal from a month ago, when the Pacers were dragged down by squabbles over playing time and haunted by an inability to close out opponents. Five times in an 11-game stretch they were on the wrong end of a one-point final score. Watching those games slip away, says forward Antonio Davis, "made you wonder what was wrong with us."
With four games left in the regular season, Indiana coach Larry Bird made a change. He scrapped his rotation, which had put the defensive trio of Davis, point guard Travis Best and forward Jalen Rose on the floor in the fourth quarter, with starters Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin watching from the bench. Once Bird determined that he needed the offensive firepower of his first unit during crunch time, the Pacers blossomed again. Indiana won its final four games of the regular season, two of them in overtime. "Something needed to be done," Antonio Davis says. "We weren't getting the best out of our guys. After the change we were back to our old selves."
The Pacers' surge coincided with the return of forward Derrick McKey, who had been sidelined for most of the season with tendinitis in his right knee. His versatility on defense enabled Indiana to put the clamps on big scorers like the Milwaukee Bucks' Glenn Robinson, whom McKey quieted in the Pacers' first-round sweep. Against Philly the task of guarding Iverson fell to Jackson, who gave up a step and a half in quickness but compensated with guile. He made Iverson work for his points by bumping him, denying him the ball and forcing him out to three-point range. At the other end of the floor, Miller wore Iverson down by running him through a maze of screens.
The bump-and-grind took its toll. Iverson, who averaged 45.7 minutes and sank only 5 of 25 threes in the series, came up short on many of his jumpers in Game 3, a telltale sign of fatigue. But then you'd be tired too if you hoisted up 33 shots in one night, a statistic that was viewed by Indiana with curiosity. "You almost want to run out there and tell him, 'Get the other guys involved, then take the shot when it counts,' "said Pacers center Rik Smits.
Iverson's domination of the ball drew immediate comparisons with a young Michael Jordan, who scored 63 points in a losing effort against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs. "What people forget," former Celtic Bird said wryly, "is that we won that series 3-0. One guy can't beat a team. Michael couldn't do it. Nobody can."