Reggie plays redemption song for PacersBy Chad Ford, ESPN Insider
Chad Ford Archive
INDIANAPOLIS Ten years from now, you're going to tell your kids, maybe your grandkids, about how Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers helped save the NBA.
You'll tell them how the Pacers persevered through one of the ugliest incidents in the history of the league.
You'll tell them how the Pacers battled through suspensions, injuries and hopelessness without excuses.
You'll tell them how a 39-year-old jump shooter, years past his prime and in the last season of his career, found within himself not only the courage to compete, but the resolve to inspire the few healthy remaining teammates he had to do the same.
Someday, you'll talk about the improbability of it all.
You'll recall how the Pacers started 17 different players, some of whom barely belonged in the CBA, let alone the NBA.
You'll relate how they had 20 different players in uniform and 28 different starting lineups.
They began the season with the credentials of a contender. After the Nov. 19 brawl with the Detroit Pistons and the Palace of Auburn Hills patrons, the Pacers had the résumé of a lottery team.
Through it all, they had the heart of a champion.
That's high praise for a team that's won just 38 games and still isn't assured that it'll be in the playoffs.
After the scorn and ridicule. After being written off when suspensions and injuries ravaged their roster the Pacers have turned from exiles to the exalted.
In the course of six months, the Pacers have evolved from the terrible story that everyone was shouting about into the best story few are discussing.
"Anything that can happen to a pro team has happened to us in a major way this year," Jermaine O'Neal said. "But no one is talking about what this team is doing. No one is taking about what this team has done. It's so easy to talk about what hasn't gone right. But, take your top three players and take half of the season away and can they compete? They can't.
"We have heart. It overshadows everything. It overshadows talent. It overshadows adversity. We may be wounded inside and out. But no one will ever be able to question our hearts."
The Pacers' stout hearts were on display March 31 at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers were fighting for their playoff lives against the best team in the league, the Miami Heat.
Shaquille O'Neal was dominating Scot Pollard down low, finishing the game with 24 points and 13 boards. Dwyane Wade was slithering through a porous Pacers' defense on the way to a 37-point, 9-rebound, 6-assist game. Damon Jones was wreaking havoc on the perimeter, going 5-for-5 from 3-point range and 10-for-13 overall from the field on the way to a 27-point night.
The Pacers were outmatched throughout the whole game. With no interior scoring (just 22 of their 114 points came in the paint) and their three best players out of the lineup, there were at least five separate occasions when a Pacers' victory seemed inconceivable.
But every time the Heat threatened to pull away, Miller would come off a series of picks and launch an off-balance jumper that would swish through the basket.
With the Pacers down three with just 10 seconds remaining, everyone in the building knew who was getting the ball. With the crowd chanting "Reg-gie! Reg-gie", the Pacers set up an elaborate set of picks to get Miller free. The Heat were so concerned with Miller that they left Stephen Jackson wide open at the top of the key. Jackson swished a jumper at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
After the Pacers fell behind by four in overtime, Miller took over again, scoring eight points in a 12-point run to put the game away. Miller ended the game with 31 points on 11-of-18 shooting.
That was not too shabby for a 39-year-old who claims he's retiring at season's end.
As the seconds evaporated in yet another improbable victory, the crowd chanted "One more year! One more year!"
After the game, Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle found the right words to describe it all.
"Don't underestimate greatness," Carlisle said of Miller. "Tonight was a performance for the ages. What he's doing right now is what legends are made of, without question."
Miller was a tad more humble.
"Just winning ball games, that's what it's all about, " said Miller as he deflected questions about his retirement and his role on the team.
On every step of the Pacers' journey toward redemption, it's been Miller who's led the way.
As good as he's been in the past think about the 25 points he scored in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in 1994 or the eight points in eight seconds against the Knicks in 1995 what Miller is doing now is even more remarkable.
In March, Miller averaged 19 ppg a mark he hasn't achieved since the 1997-98 season. He stepped up huge when his team needed him the most, providing a 39-point performance against the Lakers and a 36-point night against the Trail Blazers.
He's taken an entire team on his skinny, aching back and is carrying it to the finish line both on and off the court
The Pacers can't exactly say that they saw it coming.
"You could see that Reggie still had something left in spots," Pacers CEO and president Donnie Walsh said. "But no, I don't think any us really knew. Since Jermaine and Ron Artest came, the offense was really set up for them. Reggie was fine deferring to the younger players all the time."
But with both O'Neal and Artest out, Carlisle went back into the archives and dusted off an old offense from 10 years ago, when Reggie was the primary scorer on the team.
The results have even Larry Bird gushing.
"Reggie's just been remarkable. This is how great players respond to adversity," said the president of basketball operations. "It's how great players want to go out shooting."
But it's been Miller's heroics off the court that have made the biggest difference to the Pacers.
"I've gained more respect for Reggie Miller as a truly great player and a great leader who is willing to lead by example," Carlisle said.
"He doesn't say much, contrary to what people may believe about him and his personality. But he has an enormous impact on the resolve of the team. If you want a reason why this team hasn't given up, I don't think you need to look any further than Reggie."
His teammates agree.
"Reggie Miller has been the key," O'Neal said. "Reggie is energetic, like he's 20 years old. Having a great leader like Reggie, he's never gotten down. He's still fighting. It's inspired every one of us."
The Pistons-Pacers' brawl was supposed to change the game. Damage the reputation of the league. And end the Pacers' season.
None of that has happened. Reggie wouldn't let it happen.
Hours after the Nov. 19 brawl, Carlisle addressed his team on the plane.
"I said I knew that some bad things were going to happen to this team because of what happened," Carlisle remembers.
"I knew there were going to be big suspensions. But I promised the guys that we'd become a better team because of it. That this would bring our team closer together."
Carlisle's prediction on both points proved to be uncanny. The suspensions were unprecedented. Artest was suspended for the season. Jackson got 30 games. O'Neal was lost for 15 games.
If that wasn't bad enough, the Pacers injury situation has been unbelievable. Starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley's been out 31 games because of injuries. Jonathan Bender has missed 64 games. Starting center Jeff Foster has missed 21 games. Backup center Scot Pollard has been out 32. Miller has missed 16 games. O'Neal has missed another 15 games because of injury.
Yet, through it all the Pacers have matured from a bickering team at the start of the season into a close-knit group, pulling for the same goal.
"Trial and tribulation make you stronger," O'Neal said. "The best thing about this team is that we've never given up. It was so easy for us to sit back and say this is not our year. But not one time have we not talked about making the playoffs and competing for a championship. No one has ever stopped talking about it."
That's been deliberate, according to Carlisle and O'Neal.
"No matter what we said, it wasn't going to change anything," O'Neal said. "So we had to come to together as a team and deal with it. In life, there are consequences. Our team has dealt with it. We learned that the way to fix what happened was to go on the court every night, play at high level and win basketball games.
"We did it for our fans and we did it for ourselves."
The results have been remarkable. Just two weeks ago, the Pacers' playoff chances looked slim.
The team was barely hanging on to eighth place and had upcoming games against the playoff-bound San Antonio Spurs, Pistons, Bulls, Heat and Wizards on the schedule. Against all odds, the Pacers have won four of those five and moved up two spots into the sixth seed in the East.
Barring a last-minute collapse, the Pacers will be in the playoffs and will scare the heck out of the Heat, Pistons or Boston Celtics in a first round matchup. The Pacers have beaten the Heat three times, beaten the Pistons twice in Detroit, and have won two out of three against the Celtics.
With O'Neal claiming that his rehab of his injured shoulder is ahead of schedule and that he'll be ready for the playoffs, the Pacers have become the proverbial team no one wants to meet in the first round.
Even with O'Neal, the Pacers, on paper, don't have the talent to make a team such as the Heat or Pistons sweat. Tinsley likely won't be back. Artest will be watching from home. And their bench looks like the walking wounded.
But before you write off the Pacers one last time, remember that for them, their journey is personal. Their motivation is love.
"I know Reggie's going to hate this," O'Neal says, his voice cracking with emotion. "He always tells us that we should do it for ourselves. I just want to do everything I can to make sure he goes out the way he deserves. with the crowd chanting 'Reg-gie! Reg-gie!' and a trophy held high above his head."
Whether they actually achieve that goal is irrelevant.
In a game rife with selfishness and pride, Miller and the Pacers have given NBA fans a reason to believe again in the game, its players and the power of redemption.