Reggie Miller doesn't fight the crowd, not the way he used to, at least. He doesn't call Spike out anymore, doesn't yap at Jack, hardly ever grabs his throat, as if a clutch three weren't mockery enough for the fans. At 34 he's not the same spindle-legged affront to humility that came into the league 13 years ago, that's for sure.
Growing older is part of it. Acquiring a little sensitivity is some of it. Missing enough clutch threes, as you're bound to do if you play for a while, is most of it. Bravado, once fueled by youth and ignorance, sputters with age and experience. Now the crowd grabs its throat as you set up in the corner. And the shot, wouldn't you know it, doesn't always fall.
So, no, he's not as much fun to watch anymore, he's no longer a riot-starter kit when he goes on the road. Still, he remains the heart and soul of the Pacers, and any team that fails to take Miller's ego into account is doomed to taste defeat, as the Lakers did in Game 3 of the Finals on Sunday night.
There he was, raining in 33 points, inciting the Hoosier crowd with raise-the-roof dramatics, generally reminding everyone of the importance of being Reggie. "It always comes down to me," he said, almost wearily, after Indiana had climbed back into the Finals with a slide-stopping 100-91 victory. "It's my team. I've got to do everything."
In the series' first two games, both wipeouts in L.A., Miller had been humbled, shooting I for 16 in the opener, and then, while doing a little better in the second game, producing zero points in the fourth quarter, crunch time, Miller time. The Lakers, mindful of Miller's resilience, chose not to bring this point to the fore when they spoke to the press, but the conclusion was inescapable: Miller had become a nonfactor, a victim of his own karma, choking on his own history. This was payback, finally, for a decade of high-handed obnoxiousness.
Miller argued otherwise, complaining that he'd simply had trouble getting "ticked off" at Los Angeles. He had little back story with the Lakers, no well of resentment from which to scoop desire. But then the league's best three-point shooter became a laughingstock, and suddenly he was plenty ticked off. "I'm more upset with myself now," he said after the opener. "Which is kind of scary."
It helped that the Lakers were without Kobe Bryant for Game 3, but who knows what even that wunderkind could have done in the face of this oldster's determination. It might be noted that all eight of Miller's fourth-quarter points were free throws, but to see Miller punch in a jumper in the third quarter, then steal the ball on the next possession, pull up and sink a three to give the Pacers an 18-point lead, well, you were reminded that self-confidence is a powerful force.
Then, in that same quarter, when Indiana guard Mark Jackson was forced out-of-bounds and surrounded by Lakers in front of the L.A. bench, there was Miller jumping in for the rescue, creating the kind of fuss that used to be so central to his game plan. Coach Larry Bird immediately reminded him that energy is a precious commodity at his age. "You can't get caught up in that," said Bird. But Miller shrugged off the advice. "I gotta let it pour out," he said.
It was good to see him back, to know that the accumulation of failure that goes with any career does not rule out the possibility of success. It gets tougher all the time, no question. But not impossible. That next shot from the corner? Oh, it'll fall. Watch.