Hard work and new moves have helped Reggie Miller regain his aim
Even though he shot a career-low 43.8% during 1998-99 and dipped all the way to 39.7% during the playoffs, Reggie Miller never stopped believing he would lead the Pacers back into contention against the Knicks in last spring's Eastern Conference finals. Miller's teammates shared his confidence. Facing elimination in Game 6, they knew he would deflate hated New York with his swagger, unleashing a barrage of the perimeter bombs that have long been his trademark. The Pacers waited...and waited...and waited...until the game, and Indiana's season, ended with a 90-82 loss. On that night Miller shot 3 of 18 from the floor. "If I could do it over again, I'd still want the ball in Reggie's hands," Pacers coach Larry Bird declared after the Pacers were eliminated.
Through the summer Miller worked out four days a week with a personal trainer, adding 12 pounds of muscle to combat the fatigue that had plagued him through the postseason. Indiana fans eagerly awaited the return of Miller time. Through the first 15 games of this season they waited...and waited...and waited...but Miller shot 36.3%, and there were vexing questions.
Was the extra weight hampering him? (No, he insisted.) Was his uncertain future as a free agent wearing on him? (No, he insisted.) Was it possible that at 34, Miller was on the down-slope of his career? (No, he insisted, rejecting the theory that those close to him say rankled him most.)
He silenced his critics in the best way he knew how: by finally drilling jumpers. After going 2 for 11 in a win over the Trail Blazers on Nov. 29, Miller shot 51.4% from the floor over the next five games. The Pacers won all five.
Although Indiana's fans have breathed a collective sigh of relief, those who know Miller best say they knew the slump was not the sign of a deteriorating game, because the rest of Miller's repertoire—his free throw shooting, rebounding and defense-was as solid as ever. "I wasn't really worried" says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "He's gone through periods like this before."
Indiana assistant Rick Carlisle, who calls the plays for the team, says Miller needed to adjust to the rules changes, which prevented his using picks as effectively and setting an opponent up, then bumping and releasing, as he had done so masterfully. Together, Carlisle and Miller broke down videotape of every offensive set involving Miller. "We decided it was time for him to reinvent himself offensively," says Carlisle. "We started concentrating on some one-on-one moves that would a) help create a shot for him, b) create a double team and present an open shot for a teammate, or c) place him in a position to get to the line more, especially since he's a 90 percent [free throw] shooter."
Carlisle, who coaches at Pete Newell's Big Man's camp each summer, also tutored Miller on some of the footwork he teaches the big men to create space for themselves. Miller took note of each suggestion. In a win over the Spurs on Dec. 7 he implemented one of the drive-and-kick sequences he and Carlisle had discussed and hit center Rik Smits for an open basket.
In the meantime he also made an adjustment suggested by his father, Saul, who called him after the Portland game to tell him he needed to take his time in executing his moves. "He said I was in too big of a hurry," says Miller. "Sometimes it's good to be a little slow and read the defense."
Although the Pacers have added young players to their nucleus, their fortunes still rest on Miller's slender shoulders. He and his close friend and backcourtmate, Mark Jackson, will be free agents next summer, and each has asked Walsh for an extension, requests Walsh says he cannot agree to until he has assessed his team's future at the end of the season. "It's not a lack of respect," Walsh says. "It's where we are as a team. I understand why Reggie would be ticked off at me. He's done everything I've ever asked. We've been together 13 years. This has been a difficult thing for me."