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Remember Matt Maloney? Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp certainly do. Perhaps no Spacer has ever been quite as green and put under as much pressure.
The year was 1997, and the Seattle SuperSonics' defensive strategy in the conference semifinals was simple. Their opponent, the Rockets, had three Hall of Famers in Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler, as well as a veteran wing in Mario Elie. Houston's other starter was Maloney, an undrafted rookie point guard from Penn who had spent the previous season with the Grand Rapids Mackers in the CBA. Which one would you leave open?
Through the first three games, Seattle often looked as if its strategy was to pretend Maloney wasn't even on the court. The results were mixed. In the two games the Rockets won, Maloney shot well (9 of 16 on threes). In their loss, he went 1 for 7 from deep. At the start of Game 4, the pivotal game in the series, Maloney looked hesitant, missing a couple of jumpers. Knowing he needed to be aggressive, Maloney kept firing. "That's the growth of a team, the growth of a rookie," a shocked Bill Walton said on the air. "The confidence to come right back after he bricks one. Usually you say, 'We're never coming your way again, kid!'"
The truth was, Houston had no choice but to keep coming back to the kid, so quick and ferocious were the double teams on its star players. For Maloney, the night ended in fairy-tale fashion. With less than a minute remaining in overtime, he shot-faked Hersey Hawkins into the air, took a dribble and knocked down a dagger to seal the win. It was his eighth three-pointer of the game (in 13 attempts), tying him for the second-most makes in NBA playoff history. (Four players have hit nine, including Allen twice.) "The real hero of this afternoon," said Steve Jones on NBC, "is Matt Maloney."
Hero status only lasts so long, though. The Rockets went on to take the series in seven, advancing to the conference finals that year—the high point of Maloney's six-year career. Now he lives in Houston, where fans still come up to him on the street wanting to talk about those playoffs. A humble, understated man, he sums up his performance thusly: "When the ball came back to me, I had to be ready."
Dan Majerle of the Suns had a similar day in 1993, when he sank eight threes in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, a few of them launched from roughly 30 feet while spreading the floor for Charles Barkley. "You get like that, and there really isn't a bad shot," says Majerle, now the coach at Grand Canyon University. These days Majerle sees it from the other side, and he fears the spot-up shooter who starts feeling it. "You have certain defensive rules," he says. "You never want to give a layup. But there comes a point where a guy gets so hot that it goes against all your coaching philosophy. So you bring your guys to the sideline and say, 'Don't sink, don't fill. Stay in his shorts.' It's hard. You've been drilling a guy all year long, and here you're telling them to stop doing everything you've taught them." All because of the Spacer.
Among Spacers, there's a mutual appreciation for those who perform under pressure. Even though Fisher was on the losing end, he respects Miller's performance. "It's an example of a guy having mental toughness, and that's hard to measure," says the 38-year-old Fisher, who once hit 6 of 7 threes in a conference finals game for the Lakers. "A lot of people would have given up on themselves. He hung in there and his teammates trusted him and his coaches trusted him and he had one of the most special moments in NBA Finals history."
There is, of course, a flip side to all this, and it's a dark one. It's great to go 7 of 8 on threes, but what if you go 0 for 7? The Spacers know that in ways they are like field goal kickers, living in a land of limited, high-pressure opportunities. "That's the hardest thing, and people not in that situation never understand it," says Miller. "You may play 10 minutes or 30 minutes, but what dictates it is making shots. You might get one shot and you might get nine shots. And that's the hardest part of our job."
Steve Kerr, one of the first guys to make a living as a playoff shotmaker, had a unique solution for this. Before games, he would write fi on the toes of his shoes to remind himself that the first time he caught the ball he should think not about the situation, or the pressure, or however many shots he missed the last game. All he should think is "F--- it" and let it fly. (Kerr has become an unwitting inspiration of sorts after this anecdote was featured in a book. Now a TV analyst, he worked a college game last fall, and Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara came up to him, excited, and pointed to the shoes of three of the team's players, where, in Sharpie, fi was scrawled. "So apparently my legacy," says Kerr with a smile, "is for writing profanity on my clothing.")
Back in Milwaukee, the Heat take the floor for warmups before Game 3 against the Bucks. With ball boys feeding them, the Spacers take up position on the right wing. At one point they are arrayed in an arced lineup, only a foot or two away from each other: Miller and Lewis and Battier and Allen, each with hand outstretched for a ball. Then, up their arms go, launching a fusillade of threes. Schwick. Schwick. Schwick. Clank. (That would be Lewis.)