It was the perfect scenario for Reggie Miller. With time running out on the game and their season, the Indiana Pacers were down three to the Philadelphia 76ers on their home court Wednesday night. Give Miller the ball, right? But Jalen Rose took the final shot, not Miller.
This time, although they had knocked the 76ers out of the playoffs the two previous years, the Pacers were done, unable to force a Game 5. And the last thing Philadelphia wanted was to give Miller another chance to be a postseason hero.
|Reggie Miller scored 35 points and drilled 5-of-14 shots from 3-point range, but the Pacers fell in Game 3 against the 76ers.|
At 35, Miller's window is closing. He is one of the game's all-time clutch performers, but the best chance Miller will ever have to win a championship may have been last season in his one and only trip to the NBA Finals. When his contract ends, he will be 37. And as the Pacers begin their shift toward youth, Miller is caught in the middle.
Rose's misfired shot was almost a signal that the Pacers may be moving on with Miller as a complementary player instead of the go-to guy. The Pacers have become more Rose's team anyway. The transition began a year ago when Rose took over as the leading scorer and appeared to be the team's future and star.
Miller didn't have a great regular season, his 14th in the NBA. His 3-point shooting percentage, in particular, was his lowest in 10 years. But the numbers had little bearing on the playoffs, when Miller proved -- as always -- to be the Pacers' most dangerous player. In the first-round series, only his counterpart, Allen Iverson, had (slightly) better numbers than Miller, who averaged an amazing 31.2 points a game. When Miller scored 41 points in a Game 2 loss, the Sixers got 45 from Iverson.
Look at what Miller has done in past playoffs against teams like the Knicks. In today's NBA, name a player you would rather have taking the final shot than Miller, even at 35. But with Rose's last shot as an indication, Miller at some point must realize the Pacers are no longer his team. And the younger-looking Pacers are at least a year away from being the contending team that coach Isiah Thomas envisions.
While he is still playing, Miller won't discuss the importance of winning a title or what kind of void it may leave on his NBA resumé. Like any athlete should, Miller still thinks he will get at least one more chance at a title. But Miller is not alone in the fraternity of great players without NBA titles. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton are other non-title-carrying members.
Miller suffered from the same problem as Barkley, Malone and Stockton; he played in an era with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the "Bad Boys" of Detroit, a team that included his current coach. They were four of the NBA's all-time great teams.
By the time he retires, however, Miller will finish as one of the top 20 scorers of all time. He has come a long way since being booed before he even walked onto the court in Indiana. The Indiana fans wanted the Pacers to draft local hero Steve Alford in 1987. But the Pacers choose Miller, a gawky-looking kid who was more well-known as Cheryl Miller's brother.
When the Pacers drafted Miller out of UCLA, then-coach Dr. Jack Ramsay said they worried about his legs. Miller didn't have a normal running style, which -- combined with his thin build -- could have posed problems. But Ramsay said he loved Miller's attitude, despite his strange gait. He recognized Miller's fearlessness. Miller wanted the ball and worked and dared to be great, no matter what people said.
Miller suffered from the same problem as Barkley, Malone and Stockton he played in an era with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the "Bad Boys" of Detroit.
A few years ago he worked out with Kobe Bryant, and the two shared some trade secrets. Miller has never believed he has all the answers or there was no room for improvement. He was willing to talk to a 20-year-old kid and say, "Hey, I don't know everything. I need more moves. I need to get better if I have a chance."
People said Magic Johnson couldn't shoot when he entered the NBA. They also said Michael Jordan was merely a player who dunked a lot. Great players learn and keep up with the times; Magic and Jordan did. And it was never beneath Miller to do the same thing, to ask and to learn.
The youthful Pacers still have much to learn before they can challenge for a title shot. Austin Croshere hasn't lived up to his contract. Coming off an injury, Rose had a less-than-spectacular season. Jermaine O'Neal showed flashes of being a quality player. Travis Best performed well in the playoffs, averaging around 10 points and nine assists a game. Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender are young, developing players. There is hope for Miller and the Pacers.
But the 76ers will still have Iverson. The Bucks will still have Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. Orlando will get Grant Hill back next year to go with Tracy McGrady. Miami and New York are always forces to be reckoned with. New Jersey still shows promise with its youth. Eastern Conference teams other than Indiana will be good, if not better, next season.
So like Wednesday night, Miller may not get the final shot. Sadly, someone else will.