The Step Back: Miller Time

NBA / Getty / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

Take a look through the ‘This Date in the NBA’ archive and you’ll find no end of memorable moments from the league’s remarkable past. In this new series, Sean Guest revisits key events from NBA history, evaluating their impact on the players and teams involved, as well as the league and the sport more broadly.

To begin, we travel back to the year Bill Clinton became President; iconic movies like Aladdin, Sister Act, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York hit cinemas; and the Chicago Bulls won their second consecutive NBA title behind Michael Jordan.

But our subject is another young shooting guard by the name of Reggie Miller, who, on this exact day in 1992, dropped 57 points in a 134-122 win over the Charlotte Hornets:

It was a breakout performance that saw Miller go 16-of-29 from the field, making 4-of-11 from deep and 21-of-23 from the free throw line. It was also, arguably, a watershed moment for the franchise; one that confirmed that general manager Donnie Walsh had a legitimate star on his hands.

Not that Walsh necessarily needed to be convinced of Miller’s talents. He was, after all, the one who drafted the UCLA product ahead of local boy and Indiana Hoosier Steve Alford 11th overall in the 1987 NBA draft.

It was a ballsy decision that angered Indiana natives and put pressure on Miller to perform from the off. He responded well, averaging 10 points per game off the bench as a rookie and 16 per game as a starter during his sophomore year. Over the course of the next three seasons, he averaged 22.6 points per game, punctuated by a career-high 44 against the Chicago Bulls in the 1989-90 season:

This helped him land his first All-Star appearance, while the Pacers became a perennial playoff team, albeit a low-seeded one.

This was largely due to the fact that the Eastern Conference was loaded with powerhouse opponents such as the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics at the time. The Central Division alone (which is where the Pacers plied their trade) featured Michael Jordan’s formidable Bulls, Brad Daugherty’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Dominique Wilkins’ Atlanta Hawks, and a Charlotte Hornets team led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

Despite Miller’s 57-point game and a career-defining year from Detlef Schrempf, the team’s other premiere player, the 1992-93 regular season campaign didn’t put the Pacers amongst them. In fact, the team finished it with a 41-41 record, before getting ousted in the first round of the playoffs for a fourth straight year, this time at the hands of the New York Knicks.

There was, however, a silver lining. Miller was superb in that series, averaging 31.5 points per game, while shooting an unbelievable 53% from the field, 53% from deep and 95% from the free throw line (Jordan himself averaged 35.1 points that postseason, albeit in 19 games). Although it hadn’t been enough to overcome the deeper, more experienced Knicks, Walsh got a glimpse of Miller’s competitive edge and knew that by building around him, he could take the Pacers to the next level.

And so, he spent the summer of ‘93 preparing to do just that.

His first move brought free agent big man Antonio Davis to Indiana. He and existing Pacer Dale Davis (who were often referred to as the ‘Davis brothers’, even though they weren’t related), would combine to give the Pacers the toughness to compete with even the most physical frontcourts in the NBA.

Next, he went out and secured the services of future Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. And shortly after his appointment, Brown convinced Walsh to trade Detlef Schrempf to Seattle for Derrick McKey. At the time, the trade sent shockwaves around the league, not least because, along with Miller, Schrempf was considered Indiana’s best player. But as the season played out, it proved to be a shrewd decision, as McKey would help the team defensively, while Schrempf’s absence would ensure Miller (and to a lesser extent Rik Smits) saw more of the ball.

That probably wouldn’t have been possible without the signing of former L.A. Lakers point guard Byron Scott though. At 32 years of age, he joined the team in December, bringing a boatload of much needed postseason and championship experience with him.

Scott’s talent and veteran leadership finally pushed the Pacers over the edge, ensuring they finished the regular season with 47 wins. In the first round of the playoffs they overcame the upstart Orlando Magic, before beating division rivals the Atlanta Hawks in the Conference Semifinals. Once again they met the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this series was far more competitive than the previous year’s first round matchup.

In fact, it was an epic seven-game showdown that’s best known for that run in between Miller and celebrity Knicks fan Spike Lee (which was the subject of an exceptional ESPN 30 for 30 film a few years back):

For some reason, the diminutive director thought it was a good idea to bait one of the league’s most potent scorers, who in turn succeeded in capturing the essence of his 57-point game, albeit in a single quarter. ‘Miller Time’ was well and truly on, as the sharpshooter scored 25 of his 39 points in the final twelve minutes of the game, leading the Pacers to an improbable 93-86 victory.

It was the most important performance of his career to date, as Miller made some ridiculously unbelievable shots while taunting Lee verbally and even wrapping his hands around his own throat at one point to indicate that the Knicks were choking.

Unfortunately, Lee had the last laugh, as the Knicks won the next two games to advance to the NBA Finals. Miller got revenge the following year though, as he led the Pacers past their arch rivals in the Conference Semifinals, thanks in no small part to his now legendary eight points in nine seconds:

Per the above, Miller obliterated the Knicks six point lead with 18.7 seconds remaining in Game 1 of that series. It all began when he made a three before swiftly stealing Anthony Mason’s stray inbound pass, making another three, and then grabbing the rebound off Patrick Ewing’s miss, before getting fouled and making the subsequent free throws.

It was an incredible sequence that gave the Pacers the upperhand in a series where they’d previously been underdogs. They eventually went on to win it in seven games before losing to the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals.

Miller and the Pacers continued to go head to head with the East’s finest through the remainder of the decade, losing to the Bulls in the Conference Finals 1998 and the Knicks again in 1999. They eventually reached the promised land in the year 2000, but lost the NBA Finals in six games Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers.

Miller retired at the end of the 2004-05 season, having made five All-Star appearances, three All-NBA Third Team appearances while producing a number of memorable moments (good and bad – remember the premature bows against the Bulls?) along the way. He wasn’t able to give Indiana its championship, but his No. 31 was retired by the Pacers in 2006 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

He never scored more than 57 points in a single game, although it still stands as an Indiana Pacers team record today.