David Copperfield notwithstanding, most mortals are unable to make large objects vanish. And yet last weekend—poof!—Shaquille O'Neal, the Orlando Magic's 7'1", 301-pound leviathan center, did a disappearing act in the NBA playoffs thanks to the legerdemain of the Indiana Pacers, for years among the league's merest of mortals.
This is an article from the May 9, 1994 issue
On Monday the Pacers completed a sweep of Orlando in their best-of-five, opening-round series with a 99-86 Game 3 victory at Indianapolis's Market Square Arena. Indiana's first two wins had come, grittily, at the Orlando Arena—the Shack that Shaq built. In last Thursday's Game 1, the Magic were snuffed 89-88 by a last-shot, three-point sleight-of-hand from erstwhile Los Angeles Laker Byron Scott; in Game 2 on Saturday, they fell 103-101, having been done in by O'Neal's game-long foul trouble and a questionable last-minute, 24-second-violation call. And faster than you can say "Abracadabra!" the NBA's MVP (Most Visible Player) had faded from the postseason.
"We never expected this," said splendiferous Orlando rookie point guard Anfernee Hardaway of the precipitous playoff plummet after the Magic's carpet ride of a regular season. A fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, a team-record 50 wins and a road show (dubbed the Shaq Attaq) that sold out more venues than anyone not singing Evergreen were all icing to the Magic's primary goal: making the playoffs. But suddenly Orlando's postseason was turning into a postmortem. "If somebody had told me a week ago that we'd be down 0-2, I'd have laughed at him," Hardaway said after Saturday's defeat. "It was as if the Pacers were rubbing Aladdin's lamp."
But Hardaway wasn't being done in by any genie; rather he was learning the same nasty lesson that so many playoff rookies before him have painfully absorbed: The NBA postseason is a whole new show. And sometimes it's rated NC-17 (for excessive violence). Last Saturday, in Game 2 of another Eastern Conference series, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami Heat (who would end the weekend deadlocked 1-1) literally went at each other's throats. A spat between the Hawks' Duane Ferrell and the Heat's Grant Long escalated into an ugly bench-clearing brawl, resulting in three ejections, three suspensions, $155,000 in fines and a broken right hand for one unlucky participant, Miami assistant coach Alvin Gentry. And in San Antonio, where the Utah Jazz split two games with the Spurs in a first-round Western Conference series, manic Spur Dennis Rodman was possessed by an all-for-one-and-free-for-all spirit, having at Utah's Tom Chambers, Karl Malone and John Stockton. Rodman was fined $10,000 and was suspended for one game.
By comparison, the Magic-Pacer games were pacific, but to Hardaway—whose sublime 31-point effort in Game 2 was one point shy of his best as a pro—and his teammates they were nonetheless jarring. Who would have expected Indiana to pack an early knockout punch? After all, these were the same Pacers who, in the four seasons before this one, had amassed a 164-164 record, and who were 0 for 6 as an NBA franchise in postseason series.
But the Indiana players clearly are not students of history. "Our chances are as good as anybody else's," forward Sam Mitchell told The Indianapolis News early last week. "Right now, picking a favorite to come out of the East, I'd pick us." And his confidence wasn't wildly misplaced, given that the Pacers, after a 16-23 start in 1993-94, went 31-12 from Jan. 29 onward. Only the Seattle SuperSonics, the league's best regular-season team, had a better record over that span. Indiana had its most victories (47) and its longest winning streak (eight, to close out the season by an average margin of 19.3 points) in its 18 seasons in the NBA. The Pacers also had Reggie Miller, arguably the league's top marksman. "He's the best pure shooter I've ever seen," says coach Larry Brown, who's completing his first year in Indiana after tours with four other NBA teams.
There are those who consider Miller, the Pacers' alltime leading scorer after only seven seasons with the team, the best pure bull-shooter in the NBA. He has compared himself with Billy Joel and Michael Jackson ("We're all entertainers"). He especially likes to play the role of taunting villain in hostile arenas, while blithely maintaining that it's all just an act. "People misinterpretate the things I do," Miller said to NBC's Peter Vecsey last Saturday before launching into that most chic of declensions, the Third Person Unctuous. "As long as Reggie Miller goes out there and plays like Reggie Miller, the Pacers have a chance." Against the Magic, Reggie Miller did indeed play like Reggie Miller, scoring 24 points in Game 1 and 32 in Game 2, tops for Indiana in both games.
Miller is legit: an All-Star, a Dream Team Her. But what about the other Pacers? Or, to quote another NBC mainstay, Jerry Seinfeld, "Who are these people?"
They are relatively anonymous—and tend to come at you in bunches:
•The Epcot Center: "Our whole emphasis is to figure out ways to play Shaq," Brown said before the opener. The Magic Mountain had scored a then-career-high 49 points versus the Pacers early this season, getting most of his baskets against 7'4" center Rik Smits. In the playoffs Brown threw a multinational, multilingual, multitalented force at O'Neal, comprising Smits, the 6'7" Mitchell, 6'9" rookie Antonio Davis, 6'11" Dale Davis and 6'10" Derrick McKey.
Smits is a native of Holland with a deft outside touch. Antonio Davis, though an NBA rookie, has played three years in Europe and speaks a smidgen of Greek. Mitchell and Dale Davis are able to converse in French. McKey, who arrived in November in a trade with Seattle for forward Detlef Schrempf, is merely all-American. Somehow, this motley tag team did its job, especially on Saturday when it harassed the foul-plagued Shaq-Fu into 3-for-8 shooting.
How did the Pacer defenders do it? Communication. "I just try to push him out as far as possible," says Antonio Davis. "Then when he does get the ball, I turn and scream for help."
Beside sharing a surname, Antonio and Dale share a skewed sense of humor. For a home game against the Dallas Mavericks in February, they bought tickets for anyone who could prove his or her last name was Davis, and 1,975 Davises showed up. "I guess it would have been cheaper if our last name was Krystkowiak," said Dale, referring to Magic power forward Larry Krystkowiak.
•The Human Shaqrifice: Point guard Vern Fleming and power forward LaSalle Thompson have taken more than their share of lumps from O'Neal. Fleming, a 10-year veteran who holds the Indiana record for NBA games played (761), is also the Lady Byng of basketball. He has never drawn a technical foul in any of those contests, a league record.
Fleming might have been forgiven if he had picked up his first T on April 2, when O'Neal crashed onto him from behind as Fleming was completing a breakaway layup. The carnage: five lost teeth, 15 stitches in his knee—and no foul call on Shaq. "Everyone else was running down to the other end of the court," says Fleming, "and I was on the ground looking for my teeth."
Thompson broke his left hand against Shaq in the third quarter of Game 1. "I just put my hand under his arm going for a rebound," said Thompson afterward, "and then it was broken."
•Honest Workman: O.K., so he's a single entity, but journeyman (three NBA teams since 1989-90) point guard Haywoode Workman has done the work of three men this year. Signed as a free agent in September, Workman was to spell Fleming, whose job it was to back up incumbent starter Pooh Richardson. But Richardson went down with an injured calf in December, and the flash-free Workman proved more reliable than Fleming. He has owned the point ever since and is a bargain. Workman's compensation for the season: $325,000. His contribution in those crucial Games 1 and 2 wins: 23 points, 21 assists and only six turnovers.
•A Touch of Brown: "Larry's the key," Miller says of Brown, now coaching his sixth pro team, seventh if you count the Los Angeles Clippers. "Larry's a teacher. For him it starts with defense and unselfishness, principles we haven't always had." Another missing element has been playoff experience. In the past the Pacers were, like this year's Magic, ever-green. That's why Byron Scott, the leading active playoff scorer, was signed as a free agent in December. "At our first practice alter the All-Star break, Byron brought his three championship rings," says Richardson. "He showed us what it's all about: not waiting for others to do the job, but getting it done yourself."
The Tao of Pooh?
"No, that's Byron's philosophy," says Richardson. "He brought that with him."
And not a moment too soon. On Thursday the Magic built a 17-point second-quarter lead on the Pacers, but "no one panicked at halftime," said Fleming later. While Miller made six of 11 second-half shots, Orlando went stone cold, bricking 15 of 20 fourth-quarter attempts. With 25.7 seconds left, the Pacers had silenced the raucous O-rena crowd and, trailing 88-86, called timeout.
"I knew when we put Byron in that it was either me or him," said Miller, who, when play resumed, drove to the top of the key and then dished to a wide-open Scott at the elbow of the three-point circle. Nothin' but net.
"In the past I might have looked to take that shot myself," said Miller, "but we're a different team this year."
On Saturday, O'Neal picked up two fouls before the game was three minutes old. He played but 36 minutes, went dunkless for only the fourth time this season and shot more than twice as many free throws (18, converting nine) as he did field goals.
O'Neal would score only one point in the final quarter. But Orlando rallied behind its long-range shooting—the Magic had a single-game playoff record 11 three-pointers—and crept to within two points in the final minute. With seven seconds remaining in the game and the 24-second clock winding down, Nick Anderson blocked a Workman jumper. Shaq scooped up the ball and tossed it up-court to Dennis Scott, who fed Hardaway for a breakaway, and game-tying, dunk. But no: The referees ruled that the shot clock had expired before Workman had shot. After a timeout, Hardaway drove the length of the court and tried to tic the game with an off-balance 12-footer that bounced high off the rim.
Now, back home in Indiana, May commenced with more than just the Indy 500 time trials. It was a new sensation: no more test drives in the NBA playoffs. "I'll tell you," says Miller, "our goal should be nothing short of the conference finals."
Well, then: Gentlemen, keep your engines running.