Two super games from Reggie Miller helped cure what ailed Indiana
The dilemmas now confronting the Pacers existed long before their first-round series against the Bucks stretched to a perilous fifth game. Indiana survived last Thursday when its slender leader, Reggie Miller, having worn a Superman T-shirt in pregame and halftime warmups, scored a heroic 41 points in a 96-95 win over the Bucks. Though the victory kept the Pacers' title hopes alive, the drawn-out series highlighted the difficult choices facing coach Larry Bird, who must keep his veterans happy while also developing his young players. Asked how often he must extinguish brushfires of discontent over playing time, Bird answers wearily, "Every day."
"It's been difficult," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh, who will have a mountain of personnel decisions to make after the season. "Larry realizes he's no longer coaching the team, but managing it."
In Game 1 of Indiana's Eastern Conference semifinal against the 76ers last Saturday, that meant sitting proud point guard Mark Jackson, at one time the pulse of the team, so that the quicker Travis Best could harass high-scoring Allen Iverson. It meant extensive bench time for Rik Smits, the 7'4" center who may or may not retire at season's end, so that Austin Croshere, who may or may not re-sign as a free agent, could bang with Philadelphia big men Theo Ratliff and Tyrone Hill. It meant limiting probable Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, Bird's former Olympic teammate, to garbage time so that swingman Jalen Rose, another free agent whose signing Walsh calls the team's top priority, could continue to blossom in a starring role. "There's a lot going on," Bird says. "Sometimes it's a wonder we win any games at all."
Yet once in a while it all falls into place, as it did in Saturday's 108-91 win at Conseco Field-house. The old guard of Jackson and Miller was brilliant in the opening quarter, shredding Philly's defense with sharp ball movement and savvy decision-making. The next wave, Rose and Best, forced tempo, applied pressure and made big plays. Miller finished with 40 points. Rose? He had 40, too.
It was a particularly satisfying performance for the 34-year-old Miller, who is—you guessed it—also a free agent this summer, and who shot just 39.7% in the 1999 postseason while failing to deliver his customary three-point daggers. "It may sound corny, but I can see [the determination] in his eyes," says Jackson, Miller's closest friend on the team.
Before Game 1, Miller had asked Jackson if he should wear the Superman T-shirt again. "I said to him, 'Are you going to show up today?' " said Jackson, trying to light a fire under his teammate. " 'If not, don't wear it. Don't disrespect Superman.' Right then his ears went straight up, like a trained dog's."
Coming off back-to-back big games, Miller was confident he could continue to exploit smaller defenders like Iverson, Eric Snow and Aaron McKie. And sure enough, he scored 19 points on Monday night (Rose had 30) in a 103-97 victory that gave the Pacers a 2-0 edge heading back to Philly. Iverson, whose frustration led to an ejection in Game 1, poured in 28. Smits, whose mobility is limited by myriad foot injuries and advancing age (he's 33), played only 18 minutes after logging 13 in Game 1. "You look back at the way it used to be, when you had more time to get in the flow of the game," Smits said. "But, if playing less is the price for getting to the Finals, I'll gladly pay it."
The young guys understand their elders' pain, but they, too, have spent their time on the pine. "I feel for Mark when he's sitting," says Best. "But I've been patient for five years. I want people to know I can play this game, too."
In the Eastern Conference finals last year Bird stubbornly stuck with Jackson, Mullin and Smits because he felt the players who had extended the Bulls to seven games in the 1998 conference finals deserved a chance to take the team one more step. That resolve withered when the Pacers fell to the Knicks. Bird, who will step down as coach at season's end, has a new edict: Whoever plays best plays last.