Two super games from Reggie Miller helped cure what ailed Indiana
The dilemmas now confronting the Pacers existed long before their
first-round series against the Bucks stretched to a perilous
fifth game. Indiana survived last Thursday when its slender
leader, Reggie Miller, having worn a Superman T-shirt in pregame
and halftime warmups, scored a heroic 41 points in a 96-95 win
over the Bucks. Though the victory kept the Pacers' title hopes
alive, the drawn-out series highlighted the difficult choices
facing coach Larry Bird, who must keep his veterans happy while
also developing his young players. Asked how often he must
extinguish brushfires of discontent over playing time, Bird
answers wearily, "Every day."
"It's been difficult," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh, who
will have a mountain of personnel decisions to make after the
season. "Larry realizes he's no longer coaching the team, but
In Game 1 of Indiana's Eastern Conference semifinal against the
76ers last Saturday, that meant sitting proud point guard Mark
Jackson, at one time the pulse of the team, so that the quicker
Travis Best could harass high-scoring Allen Iverson. It meant
extensive bench time for Rik Smits, the 7'4" center who may or
may not retire at season's end, so that Austin Croshere, who may
or may not re-sign as a free agent, could bang with Philadelphia
big men Theo Ratliff and Tyrone Hill. It meant limiting probable
Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, Bird's former Olympic teammate, to
garbage time so that swingman Jalen Rose, another free agent
whose signing Walsh calls the team's top priority, could continue
to blossom in a starring role. "There's a lot going on," Bird
says. "Sometimes it's a wonder we win any games at all."
Yet once in a while it all falls into place, as it did in
Saturday's 108-91 win at Conseco Fieldhouse. The old guard of
Jackson and Miller was brilliant in the opening quarter,
shredding Philly's defense with sharp ball movement and savvy
decision-making. The next wave, Rose and Best, forced tempo,
applied pressure and made big plays. Miller finished with 40
points. Rose? He had 40, too.
It was a particularly satisfying performance for the 34-year-old
Miller, who is--you guessed it--also a free agent this summer, and
who shot just 39.7% in the 1999 postseason while failing to
deliver his customary three-point daggers. "It may sound corny,
but I can see [the determination] in his eyes," says Jackson,
Miller's closest friend on the team.
Before Game 1, Miller had asked Jackson if he should wear the
Superman T-shirt again. "I said to him, 'Are you going to show up
today?'" said Jackson, trying to light a fire under his teammate.
"'If not, don't wear it. Don't disrespect Superman.' Right then
his ears went straight up, like a trained dog's."
Coming off back-to-back big games, Miller was confident he could
continue to exploit smaller defenders like Iverson, Eric Snow and
Aaron McKie. And sure enough, he scored 19 points on Monday night
(Rose had 30) in a 103-97 victory that gave the Pacers a 2-0 edge
heading back to Philly. Iverson, whose frustration led to an
ejection in Game 1, poured in 28. Smits, whose mobility is
limited by myriad foot injuries and advancing age (he's 33),
played only 18 minutes after logging 13 in Game 1. "You look back
at the way it used to be, when you had more time to get in the
flow of the game," Smits said. "But, if playing less is the price
for getting to the Finals, I'll gladly pay it."
The young guys understand their elders' pain, but they, too, have
spent their time on the pine. "I feel for Mark when he's
sitting," says Best. "But I've been patient for five years. I
want people to know I can play this game, too."
In the Eastern Conference finals last year Bird stubbornly stuck
with Jackson, Mullin and Smits because he felt the players who
had extended the Bulls to seven games in the 1998 conference
finals deserved a chance to take the team one more step. That
resolve withered when the Pacers fell to the Knicks. Bird, who
will step down as coach at season's end, has a new edict: Whoever
plays best plays last.
Whither the Spurs?
Selling Duncan On the Future
Lakers coach Phil Jackson had it all wrong: If an asterisk is
placed next to one Spurs season, it shouldn't be
lockout-shortened 1998-99, when they won the title, but the one
that just ended with a first-round loss to the Suns. San Antonio
endured an avalanche of bad news, beginning with the revelation,
a month after winning the title, that Sean Elliott needed a
kidney transplant, and ending with Tim Duncan's left knee injury
with four games remaining in the regular season, which forced him
to watch the postseason in street clothes. (Invest in a tie,
Suddenly the Spurs are a team at the crossroads, with aging
players who need to be replaced and key free agents (read:
Duncan) who will make or break the team's immediate future. The
daunting job facing coach and general manager Gregg Popovich is
to put the 1999-2000 season in perspective for Duncan and to
persuade him that the Spurs can re-create the chemistry of the
title-winning team, albeit with a different cast.
If Popovich is going to sell that idea to Duncan, he needs to
make his team younger and more athletic, which is why he will
re-sign point guard Antonio Daniels, 25, whose energy and
immaturity make him alternately invigorating and infuriating.
Daniels's return won't spell the departure of veteran playmaker
Avery Johnson, though. "Avery is coming back," Popovich says.
"It's just a question of for how long." On the other hand, Mario
Elie, 36, and Jerome Kersey, 37, will not be re-signed, and
Elliott, 32, is contemplating retirement.
Duncan has questions about the team beyond next season, when
David Robinson's contract is up. Popovich will tell Duncan the
plan is to sign a marquee free agent with the salary-cap space
cleared after 2000-01, when the Admiral's contract has expired.
Signing that free agent will be far easier with Duncan aboard as
Popovich will also say that the presence of Robinson for at least
another year should not be taken lightly. San Antonio is a
wonderful city. The ownership is solid.
But Duncan already knows all that. "True," Popovich says. "He's
either staying, or he's not."
Around The Rim
The NBA is mourning the passing of Trail Blazers assistant coach
Bill Musselman, 59, who was known for both his insatiable
appetite for the game and his impassioned locker room speeches.
Only days before his death, Musselman telephoned the team from
his hospital room with last-minute tips on how to beat the
Timberwolves in Game 1 of their first-round series....
Clippers coach Jim Todd was summoned by owner Donald Sterling
last week, but not to receive his expected pink slip. Instead,
Todd was told he was being retained through the end of
June--which is when his contract expires--and possibly beyond.
Sources close to the team say that Todd's chances of staying on
are slim, though, and that assistants Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and
Dennis Johnson, each rumored to be Todd's successor, had yet to
be approached about the job....
After vowing last spring that he would become an elite two-way
player, Kobe Bryant was the first Laker to be named to the NBA's
All-Defensive Team since 1987-88, when Michael Cooper was
chosen. Bryant beat out former teammate Eddie Jones, who was
shipped to the Hornets last season to give Bryant more playing
Want to advance in the playoffs? Stay away from Terry Porter,
who signed with the Spurs in the off-season. San Antonio was a
first-round casualty, while Porter's former team, the Heat,
advanced. In Porter's last seven postseason trips, his team has
lost in the first round each time.