Ask anyone off the street what they think of Reggie Miller and you are bound to get a hundred different opinions. For every person that loved him, there was another that hated him. Some would simply tell you they found him annoying while others would droll on about how his skill set was decades ahead of its time. But that's just the thing. No matter who you ask, they all have an opinion. Players come and go in the theater of relevance but those who are truly great always remain. Reggie is one of those greats.
Reggie’s greatness is undeniable no matter how you feel about him. He’s 21st all-time in scoring in the NBA and 2nd in made three-pointers(although soon to be surpassed by Steph Curry). He made the All-Start team five times, received MVP votes, and is one of the few NBA players to join the 50-40-90 club. More than any of that though, Reggie was great because of his presence on the court. He loved the big moments and when he wasn’t making game-clinching shots he was jawing on the court. He was known around the league for his smack talk. Guys would gameplan a week before a game with Reggie telling each other not to let him get in their heads, and of course when you’re talking like that then he’s already in your head. He was infuriating to play, ask anyone on the Knicks from that era and they’ll tell you they hated him at the time. No qualifications or remorse, they flat out hated him. He was a terror to play against, bar none.
Perhaps what best personifies Reggie’s career is all of his series with the Knicks. From the jump, the Pacers and the Knicks were diametrically opposed. It was rural towns and mid-western values versus the bright lights and big city ideals. The state of Indiana was known for its basketball purism. The jumper was king and good high school basketball was everything to the people of Indiana. The courts of New York city were tough, cold, and rewarded toughness. If you were going to win on the NYC streets you were going to do it getting to the basket. Whether you were a big guy busting it up in the paint or a tricky undersized guard dodging his way to the rim, that was the New York style. New Yorkers looked down on Indiana and Pacers faithful resented them for it. It was the perfect rivalry and it fueled Reggie to greatness. Reggie, a California native, took the attacks on the state of Indiana personally. The greatness of the Pacers and Knicks in the ’90s and Reggie’s penchant for entertainment meant these series and the Garden was the perfect stage for him to immortalize his legacy.
It started in 1993 with the first of six playoff matchups between 1993-2000. The Pacers had barely squeaked into the playoffs with a 41-41 record and as the eight seed was set to face off against the top-seeded Knicks who had gone 60-22 and were led by a dominant Patrick Ewing. Needless to say, the Knicks were heavy favorites. Everyone expected them to contend with the Bulls to reach the finals, but the series would prove far more interesting. The first two games lived up to expectations with the Knicks winning both bouts in the garden. The third game is when it got interesting. Pre-match Knicks point-guard John Starks refused to shake Reggie Miller's hand. Reggie took it as a challenge and decided “I'm going to embarrass this kid.” John Starks was the perfect target.
Starks had worked hard to get to the NBA and was known for his short fuse and no-nonsense attitude. So when Reggie started trash talking him up and down the court it was only a matter of time before Starks exploded. Every missed shot, fumbled ball, or bad pass Reggie was right there in Starks’ ear letting him have it. You could see it in Starks body language, he was close to breaking. It all culminated when Reggie gave him a little shove running up the court and Starks responded with a headbutt right in front of the refs. Reggie with his flair for the theatrical sold it and Starks was promptly given the boot. Ewing and Oakley looked like they might strike down Starks right where he stood. The Pacers went on to win that game but would lose the best of 5 series 3-1, but that one win had consequences that would reverberate for years to come. It was the beginning of a rivalry that wouldn’t end any time soon. The beginning of a path that would create some of our fondest NBA memories, and for the fans of those teams, some of the most gut-wrenching.
Next season was a different story altogether. Gone were the mediocre Pacers, replaced by a 47 win squad on a hot streak. Michael Jordan’s early retirement had opened up a path to the Finals in the Eastern Conference and many favored the Knicks to seize that opportunity. Their record finished tied with the Hawks at 57-25 but a tiebreaker meant that the Hawks snagged the 1 seed and the Knicks were left with the 2. The Pacers swept aside Orlando and upset top-seeded Atlanta to book a place in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks knocked away the Nets and finally got over the Bulls hump, winning a hard-fought series in 7 games. Just a year after the rivalry had begun we would get its second iteration on an even bigger stage. The two teams traded blows, winning their home games through the first four to level the series at 2-2. It was the perfect set up for what would prove to be one of Miller’s career-defining moments in game five.
The series may have been tied 2-2, but the Pacers throughout the series didn’t show much hope of winning. The Knicks had homecourt advantage and in 33 games in MSG, the Pacers had won only 2. It seemed impossible, and game five this fear seemed to be confirmed as the Pacers started out rough with miss after miss. Enter Spike Lee. As the Knicks continued to dominate the game Spike’s trash talking from his courtside seats grew louder and more confident. Reggie and Spike had been friends for a while now, and since opening the series two games down, Spike was letting Reggie have it. Starks was playing Reggie hard that night and frustrating him on the offensive side of the ball. As his shooting woes continued, the crowd started to dig into him as well. They chanted “Cheryl, Cheryl, Cheryl” referring to Reggie’s similarly dominant sister, who one time scored over 100 points in a high school game. Spike continued to hound Reggie and the Pacers. Reggie needed something to turn his game around, something to build off of. The man infamous for his trash talking and showmanship found it in Spike Lee. As the fourth quarter began, Reggie flipped a switch. It was Miller time. Reggie began to nail three after three from every distance. After every basket Reggie would trot back down the court, staring at Spike the whole time. Bang, bang, bang. Reggie couldn’t be stopped. As the Pacers pulled ahead Reggie turned to Spike and wrapped his hands around his own throat. The Knicks were choking and Reggie wanted to make sure everyone knew it. For those who love the art of trash talking, it was a truly magical moment. A scene that would live on in the annals of trash talking history forever. It lives on even today in gifs on twitter and contentious group texts. It was Reggie Miller against the city of New York. Before you knew it Reggie had lead the Pacers to a 93-86 win in the Garden. He had dropped 25 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter to claw a victory from the clutches of defeat. Even better for Reggie, the whole world blamed Spike Lee. The Knicks went on to win the series in seven games, but there’s no doubt that Reggie had created one of the greatest moments in NBA history.
1995 brought a new chapter in the Knicks-Pacers rivalry. The addition of former Knick Mark Jackson signified the turning of a page for the Pacers. Mark had been hard done by the Knicks and so gave a Reggie a partner in crime who wanted to beat the Knicks just as bad as he did. Jackson acted as Reggie’s motivator. He knew exactly what made Reggie tick, and he’d search this info it. It was fresh ammo for the war against the Knicks. Whether it be in the papers, on the radio, or on local TV, if New Yorkers were saying something about Reggie, Mark would find it. He wanted to take them out just as bad as Reggie and the eastern conference semifinals would provide them with the opportunity to make up for the past two years. Game one in Madison Square Garden was hotly contested. Foul after foul came as if it were a boxing match instead of a basketball game. Harper and Davis got themselves ejected in a scuffle and as the game went on the Knicks began to pull away. The Pacers had seen this movie plenty of times by now, another loss in the Garden was coming. With 18.7 seconds left in the game, the Pacers were down 105-99 and all hope was lost. Then, out of nowhere, came a shining glimpse of light in the form of Reggie Miller. Reggie tells his teammates, let's just get one three and go from there. 16.4 seconds—Bang. Reggie hits a three. Then out of nowhere, Reggie steals the inbound pass, instead of hitting the layup, he steps back behind the arch. Another three goes down. 13.2 seconds left. In case you aren’t keeping track, that's a tie ball game in the span of 5 seconds. In the heat of the moment, the Pacers foul John Starks. It was incomprehensible. How do you foul right there? Now, the man who started it all with a headbutt was poised to douse the Pacers sudden spark with a pair of free throws. The Garden was silent. They were in absolute shock at everything that was happening. Then, somehow, as if it was written in a movie, the moment got even more unbelievable. Starks clanks the first free throw off the rim. Surely he wouldn’t miss another, Reggie thought. Then it happened, another miss rattles off the iron, but Ewing grabs the rebound and floats up a putback. Another miss. Suddenly Reggie is grabbing the rebound and yet again, the unfathomable becomes reality when the Knicks foul one of the greatest free throw shooters of all time, Reggie Miller. He nails both shots and the comeback was complete. In just 9 seconds Reggie Miller had turned the game and the series on its head. The Pacers had stolen game one in the Garden.
The Knicks took the second game in the Garden but the Pacers would dominate game three and four in Indianapolis. It looked bleak for the Knicks. Back in the garden though the tides would turn. The two sides traded last second shots but a uncalled travel by Ewing would give the Knicks the winning bucket while another wonderful performance would allow them steal a game in Indy. After being down 3-1 the Knicks had tied up the series and it all came down to one last showdown in Madison Square Garden. Would the Knicks become just the fifth team to complete a 3-1 comeback in NBA playoff history or would the Pacers finally get revenge for the past two years? The Garden was the biggest stage in the world, in the biggest city in the world, and we were set for a classic. Celebrities and fans alike flocked to the Garden and filled the stands to see what might happen. Neither side was going to go down easy. The two teams battled for four quarters, never giving up more than an inch. If last year was the quietest the Garden has ever been, this might’ve been the loudest. Despite Indiana winning as the game clock continued winding down, a New York win still felt inevitable. Because of blowing a 3-1 lead, the previous two years of Pacer losses, the Knicks being on their home court, it just seemed insurmountable. With just 5 seconds left the Knicks were down 2 and only one man was going to get the last shot. Ewing had been the Knicks’ leader for a decade now, and as he took the inbound pass and turned a huge lane opened up. Ewing charged down the lane and it was almost unsurprising. The Knicks were going to win, it was meant to be. He floats the ball up, a shot he must have made a thousand times prior, but not this time. Ewing had clanged it off the back iron and time was up. The Knicks had lost, in the garden. An era was over for the Knicks. Ewings body was failing him and Pat Riley would resign in the offseason. The Pacers had finally conquered the Knicks.
The Pacers and a different generation of Knicks would go on to have memorable battles in following seasons, but none were quite as special as these. It was the making of a legacy for Reggie Miller. He had done it against every level of competition in the NBA and was a hall of Famer by any measure, but those victories against the Knicks in the Garden were what made his legacy truly special. It was the perfect stage for arguably the leagues greatest ever performer. Miller had nine 30+ point playoff games against the Knicks, trailing only Michael Jordan. He was dubbed the Knick-Killer for a reason. It was the epitome of Reggie Miller. Its how we remember him. We remember the trash talking and the choking taunts. The last-second daggers and precision shooting. There’s a lot of things you can say about Reggie, but there's one word that defines him: fun. When you watched him play you felt like no one in the world was having more fun than him at that moment, and it made you have fun just watching. Reggie created a legacy we will always remember, and he built it in Garden.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.
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