Indiana pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller has probably hit more clutch postseason shots than any other active player, yet he remains on the periphery of superstardom, an outside shooter, if you will, looking in. A case could be made that he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer: In his 13 seasons he has sunk more three-point shots than any other NBA player in history and, almost as important, has made Madison Square Garden court-side irritant Spike Lee look like a fool on more than one occasion. But a credible argument (based on Miller's questionable shot selection, his liabilities as a defender and zero championship rings) could be made for his exclusion. The cartoonish appearance, the trash-talking, the arsenal of improbable long-distance leaners, floaters and fadeaways—they've all conspired to make Miller more sideshow than main event, a status that probably won't change until Indiana makes its first appearance in the NBA Finals. "So, maybe," Miller said last week, "this is the season all that changes."
Maybe it is. While the Pacers are among the league's oldies but goodies, they did have enough firepower in the first round to knock off the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with, to use Miller's eye-rolling description, "young legs." Other evidence, however, suggests that Indiana will again stumble in the Eastern Conference finals, as it has the past two seasons. If, that is, the Pacers make it that far. After taking three straight from the Philadelphia 76ers in their conference semifinal, Indiana dropped Games 4 and 5, the latter a 107-86 humbling at home on Monday night in which the Sixers scored the first 15 points. The Pacers' play on the boards would need improvement to be considered pathetic—Philadelphia outrebounded them in all five games—and a bona fide 10-deep roster, which can be a blessing, has sometimes presented dizzying playing-time headaches for coach Larry Bird.
Then there is the matter of Miller's composure—or the lack thereof. The Pacers' star sat out Monday night's game after receiving a one-game suspension for shoving Sixers center Matt Geiger in last Saturday's Game 4 at First Union Center. A day earlier Miller had walked along the streets of Philadelphia dressed in a plaid shirt, pressed jeans, a floppy hat and sunglasses, looking so sweet and unassuming that even a 76ers fan might have thought about throwing an arm around his slender shoulders and saying howdy. That would have been fine with Miller, who's about as approachable as a big-name athlete can be. Just before the tip-off on Saturday, though, the Sixers' fans were baiting Miller by chanting his other surname, which is Sucks. His M.O. is to encourage the catcallers, egg them on a little by cocking his hand to his ear or strutting more peacockishly, then to bury a dagger-in-the-heart three-pointer. Late in Game 4, however, it was Miller who lost his cool.
After being slammed to the floor by the 7'1", 248-pound Geiger in the third quarter, the second such flagrant foul he had committed against Miller that afternoon, Miller went after the bald muscleman, thereby earning a technical foul, an ejection, a $5,000 fine and the suspension. ( Geiger was ejected, fined $20,000 and suspended for two games, and the Sixers were fined $50,000.) Miller's teammates offered the predictable defense of him in public, but privately some were incensed that he had gotten tossed for a shove to the face of a player who, as Sam Perkins put it, "isn't worth it."
Until that mistimed Geiger counter, Miller's comportment and performance in he playoffs had been beyond reproach. The Pacers do have "young legs"—swingman Jalen Rose and point guard Travis Best, Doth 27, are key players—but as the postseason has worn on, more and more weight has been carried by the 34-year-old Miller. He laid 34 and 41 points on the Bucks in crucial Games 3 and 5 of the first-round series, then opened with 40 in Game 1 against the Sixers. That total was matched by Rose, which demonstrated that there are enough shots to keep both Mr. Past and Mr. Future happy. Ah, but who is Mr. Present? "It's playoff time," says Bird. "Reggie's the man, and he knows he's the man."
In the regular season there was a temptation to think that the torch had been passed to Rose, given that he supplanted Miller, after 10 straight years, as the team's leading scorer (18.2 points per game compared with Miller's 18.1) and that Reggie really did Suck in last year's postseason. [He shot only 39.7%.) But Miller's reemergence is more than Indiana's turning to a proven veteran in tough times; it's the result of changes Miller made in both his body and his game before the season. "It's all coming together now," he says.
Granted, the changes are subtle. When he takes off his shirt, the skin is still stretched so tight on his gangly 6'7" body that if you plucked him with your finger, you'd swear he'd make a sound like a harp. But he is six or seven pounds heavier than in recent seasons, at around 192, and he started in November as high as 205. He built himself up through a rigorous, six-day-a-week off-season program of plyometrics, which included a lot of anaerobic work, such as jumping and lifting heavy weights with few repetitions. He has continued lifting throughout the season. (Perhaps that's why he went after Geiger.) It took Miller a while to get used to the increased poundage, but he says he feels more durable and less enervated than in previous Mays.
As far as his playing style goes, Miller appears at first blush to be the same loopy launcher he's always been, flying pell-mell off picks and throwing up off-balance shots that would draw snide remarks at the Y. But he's not. In the past, Miller generally needed screens and movement to squeeze off his shots, largely because he wasn't strong enough to fight through the bumps and hand checks. These days, owing to his added muscle and to a league that has (supposedly) clamped down on clutching and grabbing, Miller is backing his opponents down more and posting up, and he's gotten better at creating his own shots. To pick up some moves, he has spent many hours watching videotape of creators such as Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. "Hey, I'm not proud," says Miller. "If I can learn from the young guys, I'll do it. That doesn't mean I'll come down with a killer crossover like Iverson, but there are a few things I've learned."
To demonstrate, Miller jumps up and pretends to be dribbling a ball. "Two dribbles, stutter step, head fake, shoot," he says. "Dribble-dribble, crossover, step back, shoot. Dribble-dribble, hesitate, don't pick up, crossover, go right, stop quick, go up, shoot." The lesson goes on for a few minutes. The man is serious about shooting.
"What makes Reggie special," says Indiana assistant coach Rick Carlisle, "is tins combination of things that goes on inside of him. He's got the gunslinger's mentality, the I-can-make-anything attitude, but he's also a man with a routine, a man with a self-discipline that's totally directed toward getting him ready to play."