There were more than a few big-time playoff performances through the six games of the Eastern Conference finals between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. New York's Larry Johnson had a couple -- and might have had another if he hadn't sprained his right knee. Latrell Sprewell had one. Allan Houston had one in Game 6, as his 32 points led the Knicks to a 90-82 victory over Indiana and into the NBA Finals. But you can list stars and then co-stars of this series all day before you get to the Pacers' Reggie Miller.
The Pacers' all-star, whose reputation was forged as a result of playoff heroics, came up empty for most of this series, especially in Friday night's elimination Game 6 when his 3-for-18 shooting greatly assisted the Knicks in their win at Madison Square Garden.
Pacers Coach Larry Bird didn't name names when he said some of his guys "didn't show up" for Game 6, but those reading between the lines thought he included Miller. And Miller, dissecting the game and his non-performance early Saturday morning, didn't disagree.
"I lost this game," he said. "I've got to take the blame. I lost this game for our team, our franchise and our state. I had too many open looks for it to be defense [that stopped him]. The other 11 guys really battled tonight. I did not make shots when I was supposed to. I have to accept responsibility for this team. I'm one of the captains, one of the leaders. For me to come up so short at a crucial time, it's disappointing."
The only thing to temper the Knicks' excitement was the uncertainty of whether Johnson would be able to play when the Finals begin Wednesday in San Antonio against the Western Conference champion Spurs. Indiana guard Travis Best fell to the floor in the second quarter and rolled into Johnson's knee, causing a sprain of the medial collateral ligament.
After the game, a team doctor told reporters that Johnson might require one to two weeks to recover from the injury. Team officials said today they were guardedly optimistic that Johnson, with the help of four days off, will be able to return to the lineup for the championship series. Team spokeswoman Lori Hamamoto said Johnson is getting daily treatment and won't practice Sunday, but will be re-evaluated on Monday.
"I think he'll be able to play on Wednesday," Knicks President Dave Checketts said. "The chances are good."
Johnson had eight points when he was injured and all the other people who needed to play well for the Knicks did. Houston hit 11 of his final 12 shots. Sprewell scored 20 points and made all his free throws down the stretch. And reserve Marcus Camby, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds, was New York's MVP according to Bird. It all helped cover for the loss of Johnson.
When the Pacers outscored the Knicks 11-0 to start the third quarter, "It looked like the team was still in shock" over the injury to Johnson, teammate Chris Childs said. But the Knicks gathered themselves and put the game in the hands of Houston, Sprewell and Camby, who were quicker and displayed a lot more energy than the older Pacers.
The Knicks became the first No. 8 seed in NBA history to advance to the Finals. Two months ago, they were struggling just to make the playoffs. They needed a last-second shot to eliminate the Heat in Miami, survived the loss of superstar Patrick Ewing to an Achilles' tendon injury, and then the loss of Johnson during a critical game. And before all that, Checketts demoted general manager Ernie Grunfeld when it appeared the acquisition of Sprewell and Camby wasn't going to work. "I don't think anybody expected this; I know I didn't," Checketts said.
As well as the Knicks played, the Pacers left wondering if they'd given their best effort, Miller in particular.
Sometimes, the numbers tell the whole story and this is one of them.
In 65 playoff games before this postseason, Miller averaged 23.5 points per game. Last year's 19.9 points in 16 playoff games was his lowest postseason scoring average. In Game 1 of the 1995 series against New York, Miller scored the team's last eight points in only 8.9 seconds to lift the Pacers to one of the great comeback victories in NBA history, also at Madison Square Garden. The previous postseason, he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Just against the Knicks in the playoffs, Miller averaged 25.2 points and had seven 30-point games. He has been the Knicks' number two nemesis over the past 10 years, behind only Michael Jordan.
But in this six-game series, Miller averaged only 16.2 points, shot 36.3 percent, and hardly ever looked aggressively to shoot as he did in last year's seven-game conference finals against the Bulls; he averaged just 13.3 shots per game in this series. Only twice in the regular season did Miller have fewer than eight points and in both those games he played 30 or fewer minutes. In 36 minutes against the Knicks Friday in Game 6, Miller scored eight points. He took only three shots in the fourth quarter and missed them all.
The Pacers were also unhappy about the disparity in fouls called: 35 against Indiana, 19 against New York. But as Bird said, "We didn't have many guys to step up and play."
CAPTION: Beleaguered coach Jeff Van Gundy hugs Allan Houston after the Knicks' series-clinching, 90-82 victory Friday night.
CAPTION: Reggie Miller, left, has been Knicks nemesis in past series, but Friday night he was a non-factor on 3-of-18 shooting.