There might not be as many stars in these Eastern Conference finals as there are in the West, but there is Reggie Miller. At 38, he's no longer the focal point of the Indiana Pacers' offense, rather he's a facilitator for a talented young team preparing to go forward without him fairly soon. His reduced minutes and shots suggest he really is more complementary player than we ever envisioned back in the '90s when he was hitting those beautiful jumpers to beat the Knicks and push the Bulls to the brink. So his three-pointer with 31.7 seconds left to win Game 1 was a throwback ending of sorts, a wonderful playoff moment tinged in nostalgia.
Miller's only basket broke a 74-74 tie. He was Mariano Rivera coming in to close it out after his teammates had done eight-plus innings of heavy lifting.
"I have a simple job description now," Miller said afterward. "Play good defense and hit big shots. I'm not the guy I was four, five, six, seven years ago when I averaged 25 points in the playoffs and took 17, 18 shots a game. [But] when the game's on the line, [teammates] know: set a pick for Reggie. He may get a good look."
That's how it went down, basically. After a full evening of chasing Richard Hamilton at one end, then trying to escape him at the other, Miller got a clean screen in the final minute of a tie game. "I knew when I got hit on the screen he'd probably make the shot," Hamilton said. "He doesn't miss those. He just doesn't. I had a feeling they were coming to him, no matter what he had shot [0 for 6 up to that point]."
Though he hasn't won a championship, it was a moment -- Miller for three and the win. It will go in a museum soon enough. You want the short list of most clutch playoff performers the last 25 years? Here it is: Jordan, Bird, Magic, Reggie, Stockton. That's the list. They'll light you up. Zero-for-six? So what. Asked what he was thinking, having already missed his first six shots, Miller smiled wryly and said, "Law of averages."
Or as Pistons Coach Larry Brown said of his former pupil, "We've all seen it. He's the best I've ever seen. You let up one time and he kills you."
It was a pure basketball moment -- rub off a screen, catch and shoot -- in a state that revels in pure basketball moments between two teams that don't allow many of them. You take away Reggie's shot and this isn't the kind of basketball they want to see in Hollywood, where the home team scores just 30 points in the second half, where the visitors score one basket in the final 7 minutes 45 seconds yet have the lead in the final minute.
Jack and Denzel and the stars along Gucci Row want a show. They like their drama thick and the pace fast, and the Lakers are almost always built to give 'em plenty of both, whether we're talking about Wilt and West, Magic and Kareem, or Kobe and Shaq.
But here in the heartland, they're happy with a lot simpler brand of basketball. It's the sight of defense and diving on the floor that warms a Hoosier's heart. They'll always take a good brawl on the hardwood here, and the same goes for Detroit. They like their basketball the same way they like their football, rough and preferably with a sneer. Here, the locals like to swap paint. In Detroit, there's nothing that brings a smile like the mention of The Bad Boys. Folks out here don't do fancy.
Detroit and Indianapolis are the only places in the league where people booed Michael Jordan and meant it. They like their basketball pure, not all glittered up with Showtime. So if you want acrobatics and theatrics, forget about watching Pistons vs. Pacers because this series will be all elbows and knees, stare downs and flying spittle, Afros and Cornrows.
Miller's three-point basket aside, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was otherwise no-frills, mostly blocked shots and bodies crashing to the floor in a heap. The winners shot 33.7 percent for the game, which has to depress Detroit, to have played such wonderful defense and still lost.
While clearly short on star power besides Reggie, this series is host to the two biggest powder kegs in the league, Rasheed Wallace and Ron Artest. It has got the last two defensive players of the year: Ben Wallace and Artest. It has got a Pistons team that held Jason Kidd without a basket in Game 7 of the second-round series and a Pacers team with three long, tall shot blockers (Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender). When the Pacers are introduced at the start of the game, their images appear on the big screen, their heads adorned in hard hats.
The two teams aren't devoid of offense. O'Neal was runner-up in the MVP voting, and he did score 20 per game. And on the Detroit side, Hamilton is the new Reggie, running off screens, then catching and shooting faster than any player in the NBA. In fact, the sight of Miller chasing Hamilton is a little like watching that commercial where young Jordan plays old Jordan. It has got a Pacers coach who used to coach the Pistons and a Pistons coach who used to coach the Pacers. In fact, the Pacers coach, Rick Carlisle, was fired less than a year ago and replaced by the Pistons coach, Brown.
If you can settle for what happens on the court, and don't have to get your thrills from seeing a player jet in from a felony trial just before tip-off, it's not a bad little series, really.
The coolest part has to be the matchup between Hamilton (game-high 23 points) and Miller, who says Hamilton has done such a good job studying old Reggie tapes that, "I gotta collect some back royalties. It's scary, even down to the holding, the pushing, the grabbing, the stopping and the starting. It's something I thought I had a trademark on."
Miller called Hamilton "Mini-Me," and added that Rip, "knows all my Jedi mind tricks."
If we're lucky, it could be a long, wonderful series featuring the two of them bouncing off screens like pinballs. There really can be beauty in the mayhem, if you know where to find it.