Reggie Miller once was the Indiana Pacers' quarterback. Now he's their 38-year-old field goal kicker, their George Blanda. With the Detroit Pistons threatening to snatch Game I of the Eastern Conference finals last Saturday, Miller calmly broke a tie by drilling a three-pointer from 26 feet with 31.7 seconds remaining and added a free throw at the end to lift Indiana to a 78-74 victory. Never mind that he had gone 0 for 6 from the field before then. "Everybody knew the ball was going to Reggie," said Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, who was unable to defend against the inevitable, thanks to Jeff Foster's perfectly executed screen. Miller followed that dagger with a team-high 21 points in Game 2 on Monday night, but his potential game-tying layup with 17 seconds left was blocked by Tayshaun Prince as the Pistons squared the series with a 72-67 victory.
Miller's unlikely transformation from superstar to sensational role player began after he averaged 24.0 points in driving an elderly Pacers team to the 2000 NBA Finals. Indiana president Donnie Walsh chose to dismantle and rebuild the team that summer: One by one Miller's peers were replaced by young players with star potential, such as Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest, which has left Miller as the only starter older than 27. Miller voluntarily handed control of the team to O'Neal, now 25, giving him a crash course on leadership in the hope that the young power forward would help bring Miller a championship. Miller also knew that he could no longer be paid like a superstar, and in an unusually uncontentious negotiation last summer he agreed to a three-year contract worth $16.5 million; this season's salary of $5 million represented a $7 million cut from 2002-03. Coach Rick Carlisle equates the efforts by Miller with those of David Robinson when he ceded command of the San Antonio Spurs to Tim Duncan. "[Reggie's] the most unselfish star I've ever been around," says Indiana guard Kenny Anderson, a 13-year veteran.
Though Miller averaged 10.0 points this season, tying his career low, his level of effort remains as high as ever. He's the first Pacer on the court before practice and maintains a year-round training regimen. "He runs on the beach in Malibu to keep his legs strong," says forward Al Harrington, 24. "I went out there three summers ago to work out with him, and my legs were so tired, I couldn't work out for the next three days."
As the conference finals progress, Miller will need that stamina to keep up with Hamilton, a shooting guard 12 years his junior who appears never to stop running while cutting off screens much the way Miller has done for so long. Hamilton says he learned the tricks for getting open from guarding Miller over the years. "I think he owes me royalties," Reggie joked after Hamilton opened the series with a game-high 23 points. He used all of Miller's feints and misdemeanors against him—the quick first step, the sudden halt to knock the chasing defender off balance, the grabbing and shoving and faking and juking. Such careful scrutiny of Miller's game also helped Hamilton mix up his defense by occasionally playing off Miller to cut off the passing lanes. But Hamilton's heart sank when Foster got an offensive board and set up Miller's decisive shot. "I know that the hardest time to guard me is after an offensive rebound," Hamilton said of being in Miller's situation, "because I move so much and it's hard to pick me up."
Detroit counts on Hamilton for clutch play the way Indiana has relied on Miller; in Game 2, Rip had 12 of the Pistons' last 13 points. But the prot�g� will never be quite so dramatic as the master because Hamilton lacks Miller's three-point marksmanship; he was just 18 for 68 on treys this year. "Their skills are the same except for that one thing," says former Pacers forward Chuck Person, now an assistant to Walsh. "If Richard Hamilton had Reggie Miller's shooting range, he would be unguardable." Says Hamilton, who had another 23-point night on Monday, "Why settle for the three when you can blow by your guy?"
While Detroit coach Larry Brown is lobbying to include Miller on the Olympic roster, the 17-year veteran is more focused on earning an NBA title before his expected retirement in 2005. But any talk of "winning one for Reggie" misses the point. The Pacers know they need Miller as much as he needs them. "We've got to make use of him while he's here," says Foster. "He is a special weapon that comes along once in a lifetime."