(Miller waves to the fans at Canseco Fieldhouse. Photo by Elsa, Getty Images)
The 2004-05 Indiana Pacers are one of the biggest "what ifs" in NBA history. For the final season of Reggie Miller's career, the Pacers added Stephen Jackson to go along with 20-point scorers Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. Having lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, Indiana seemed poised to again go deep into the playoffs.
Nine games in, the Pacers were atop the Eastern Conference and Miller, who broke his left hand in their final preseason game, hadn't even played yet. They had just gone into the Palace of Auburn Hills and won convincingly -- if this was the proof that they were the best team in the East, no one will ever know.
Unfortunately in that game in Detroit, a brawl between the two teams spilled into the stands, and the game was called with time still on the clock. NBA commissioner David Stern came down hard on the offenders. Ron Artest, who ran into the crowd to tackle a spectator, was suspended for the entire season. Jermaine O'Neal received a 25-game suspension while Stephen Jackson got 30 games. In an instant, the Pacers' title aspirations were destroyed.
As if the suspensions weren't crippling enough, the Pacers were also hit with an exorbitant amount of injuries. In total, O'Neal missed 38 games, Jackson missed 31 games, Jamaal Tinsley 42 games, Miller 16 games, Anthony Johnson 19 games, Scott Foster 21 games, and Scot Pollard 33 games. Prospect Jonathan Bender missed all but 7 games and actually had to retire only a year later. The only Pacers to play more than 70 games were third-string point guard Eddie Gill, rookie James Jones, Austin Chroshere, and Fred Jones.
Despite those ailments, the remaining Pacers managed to gel as the season progressed. With Artest done for the year, Jackson was able to move into the starting lineup and had the best season of his career. Miller raised his scoring average as well and was producing 20 points a game before O'Neal came back from injury. The Pacers won 10 of 12 games down the stretch and salvaged their season by earning a playoff spot.
One of those wins came at Madison Square Garden in what was Reggie Miller's final appearance in New York. Reggie had been the Knicks' nemesis for over a decade; he once scored 8 points in 8.9 seconds to beat them in a playoff game; in another, he flashed the choke sign at Spike Lee and proceeded to score 25 points in the 4th quarter; in 1998, he hit a game-tying three that sent the game to overtime, which the Pacers won; and in 2000, he scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to send Indiana to their first NBA Finals.
Yet for all that animosity, Miller was actually given an ovation from the Garden crowd. He was the last remaining superstar to have played in the 1980's, and though a few other players from that period remained, Miller was seen as the last breath of the NBA's golden era. The game itself was a blowout -- Indiana won by 19 while Miller only connected on 3 of 15 shots. But as Reggie sat on the bench during the final minutes, the Knicks fans chanted his name and pleaded for him to go back into the game. When the game drew to a close, Miller walked across the court and embraced Spike Lee, a sight that nobody could have imagined a few years earlier.
In the first round of the postseason, the Pacers managed to squeak past the Boston Celtics in seven games. They then faced the Detroit Pistons in the semi-finals in an attempt at payback. Indiana felt they had been unfairly singled out for their part in the brawl; many of the players were peeved that Ben Wallace, who played a major role in the Malice at the Palace, only got a 6-game suspension while three Pacers received more than 25 games.
(A fan holds a sign during the Pistons-Pacers game on Christmas. Photo by Robert Laberge, Getty Images)
Indiana got healthy at the right time of the year. Although Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O'Neal, who had just come back from the disabled list, were still rusty and not at full-strength, the Pacers were finally able to put their full team on the court (with the exception of Ron Artest, whose suspension lasted into the postseason). The Pacers won games 2 and 3 and briefly captured home court advantage.
But Detroit, the reigning NBA champions, were not to be denied. Rasheed Wallace, who had guaranteed a road victory in Game 4, produced 17 points and 12 rebounds. The Pistons were in control from the get-go and evened the series with an 89-76 win. Game 5 was an even greater blowout. Fresh off their momentum-changing win, the Pistons completely stifled the Pacers' offense. Not a single Indiana player connected on more than half of their shots, and the team was held to their lowest output of the season. Detroit mangled them 86-67 and took a 3-2 series lead into Game 6.
Many analysts expected this to be the final game of Reggie's career. Under the guidance of coach Larry Brown, and later under Flip Saunders, the Pistons had not lost a single closeout game in the postseason. They had fresher legs and were playing better as the series progressed, whereas the Indiana players seemed to be falling apart. O'Neal was having a dreadful series while Miller and Tinsley had failed to produce in their last two losses.
In Game 6, O'Neal had his best game of the postseason and gave the Pacers a first half lead. But as the game went on, the Pistons' kept the ball out of his hands and staged a furious second half rally. With Stephen Jackson having an off night, and Tinsley shooting the ball terribly, Reggie Miller kept the Pacers in the game. With the Indiana crowd behind him in his potentially final game, Miller shot 11-16 and scored 27 points to keep the hope alive. He buried a late three with 91 seconds left to cut the Pistons' lead to three.
That basket proved to be the final one of his career. Richard Hamilton finished his monster second half with a jumper to make it 84-79 with less than a minute to go. The Pacers failed to score again, while the Pistons tacked on a few extra points at the foul line. With 15.7 seconds left, Hamilton went to the foul line with the Pistons leading by 7. The crowd sensed that Miller's career was at an end and gave him a final chant of "Reggie! Reggie!"
After Hamilton knocked down the first freebie, coach Rick Carlisle decided to pull Miller from the game, giving him one last ovation from the home crowd. Larry Brown, who coached Miller in Indiana the 90's, called a 20-second timeout, so that he and his players could applaud the final moments of his career as well. It was ironic that exactly six months after the Pistons-Pacers brawl, six months after one of the ugliest scenes in sports history, a complete series between the same two teams ended in the most ceremonious way possible.
"How about that? We played three games since the fight, six games in the playoffs, and guys were hugging each other," Brown said. "That was the thing that, to me, [defined] this whole series. I just thought it showed that through all the junk that happened, kids could just play basketball."
It was one of the best ends of an NBA career ever. Most great players either retired too late or did so with another team. In the same year, Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone, two of the league's 50 greatest players, had to retire in press conferences because neither was on an NBA roster. But Miller had stuck with the same team for 18 years and finished playing a strong game against a great rival. He retired as the all-time leader in 3-pointers, as one of the best foul-shooters ever, and as one of the clutchest players in league history. And even though he failed to collect an NBA title, it was clear that he would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
(A fan salutes Miller in his final game. Photo by Elsa, Getty Images)
On-the-field tussles happen in sports: they’re inevitable. But when Ron Artest ran into the crowd, he did something worse by breaking the fourth wall between the fan and the athlete. His actions not only damaged a sport that had been heralded for being so close to the action, it ruined Reggie Miller's final season.
When Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season, he was averaging 24.6 PPG and was playing the best basketball of his career. That Pacers team was so deep that had Artest been available for their series against the Pistons, it probably would have ended differently. Who knows if they would have won it all, but they certainly would have had the talent.
In 2007, a 42 year-old Reggie Miller nearly came out of retirement. The Boston Celtics, who had traded away more than half of their roster to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, asked him if he wanted to join the team. Miller ultimately declined, saying that he didn't want to endure the mental grind on his body. That Celtics team won 66 games and beat the LA Lakers in the Finals, meaning that had Reggie gone through with a comeback, he would have captured his first championship ring.