Indiana Pacers

The Last Dance: The complicated, confusing, and confounding legacy of Reggie Miller

There's just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.

"Reggie Miller has to get involved right here."

Isiah Thomas is on the call for NBC alongside Doug Collins and Bob Costas and he's imploring Indiana's superstar shooting guard to make his mark. Miller hasn't scored since there were over three minutes left in the third quarter and up until this point has not taken a single shot in the fourth quarter, unable to shake free from the suffocating off-ball defence of Michael Jordan.

It's not just Jordan. Fellow all-world defender Scottie Pippen is aggressively helping with the occasional double team while playing free safety and every Bulls defender purposefully hedges over every off-ball screen to deny an easy catch for Miller.

MORE: Did Michael Jordan or LeBron James face tougher competition in the playoffs?

Nothing comes easy. Not in any Game 7, but especially not in this Game 7.

On the other end of the floor, it's all Jordan. He's attacking every time down the floor, getting to the line at will and drawing five sets of Pacer eyes, six if you include Indiana head coach Larry Bird who in addition to not being able to spring free Miller looks on helplessly as No. 23 barrels his way down the lane time and again. Moments earlier Jordan found Luc Longley who rewarded his faith by calmly sinking a baseline jumper, earning an emphatic fist pump from the five-time MVP.

After Jordan hits a pair of free throws to put the Bulls up four and within shouting distance of yet another trip to the Finals, Miller finally finds some space, catching a pass on the wing and immediately elevating only to get blocked by Dennis Rodman.


Antonio Davis tips it in make it a two-point game, but that's the last we hear from Miller who finishes the fourth quarter scoreless in what at the time was the biggest game of his career.

The Pacers leave the floor of the United Center wondering what might have been. The Bulls are now two weeks away from celebrating a sixth title in eight years.

"I'm going to retire Michael Jordan."

Imagine having the confidence to even think that.

Imagine having the confidence to truly believe that.

Now imagine having the confidence to say it out loud... in public... to cameras...

... for a documentary that's now averaging over six million live viewers and double that when accounting for non-linear viewing.

Honestly, if you just said "hey there's this player from the 90s who said he's going to put Michael Jordan out to pasture" without any additional context, my first guess would have been Reggie Miller. An iconic trash talker, a Hall-of-Famer, one of the best shooting guards of his day, the greatest shooter of his generation and a big-game player with a reputation to go with it that's stood the test of time, Miller is just one of those guys who stands out in the crowd. Just recently, ESPN listed Miller as one of the greatest 50 players of all-time.

If anyone can utter those six words out loud, it's Miller... right?

I'm a basketball child of the 90s. I plastered Jordan and Pippen posters all over my bedroom walls and loved those Sunday games on NBC with 'Roundball Rock' and Hannah Storm and Ahmad Rashad and all of the pageantry that came with coming of age as an NBA fan during the Bulls dynasty.

So, of course, I grew up with a steady dose of Miller. Along with Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone, Miller played a starring role as part of a three-headed Wile E. Coyote, the antagonist who just wouldn't stop trying to take out the Road Runner even in the face of certain defeat. For years I watched his Pacers do battle with the Bulls, culminating in an epic seven-game Eastern Conference Finals in 1998. Looking back, its hard to believe that was the only time Jordan and Miller squared off in the playoffs given Miller's enduring legacy as a contemporary rival at the same position as the greatest player in the history of the NBA.

We know of Miller for eight points in nine seconds.

We know of Miller for the game-winner to beat Jordan's Bulls in Game 4 of that Eastern Conference Finals.

We know of Miller for his showdown with Spike Lee.

For 18 years, Miller became a household name thanks to an endless barrage of 3-pointers, baseline cuts, and unforgettable scraps with the likes of Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Always and forever an Indiana Pacer, Miller stands proudly as one of the last remnants of an era in which superstars stayed in one city, famously forgoing overtures from friends and family to return to Southern California and play for the Lakers.

The aura of Reggie Miller is one of an all-time great, the type of player that rolls off the tongue when talking 90s given not only the manner in which he went about his business, but the degree to which he remained relevant throughout the entirety of his career. Over the 16-year stretch spanning 1990 to 2005, no player made the playoffs more times that Miller who missed out only once.

Miller is one of those players who sounds almost mythical when sitting on grandpa's proverbial lap hearing all sorts of stories about his legendary heroics.

And yet if you take the time to dig into the details, that mythical aura leaves some lingering doubts.

If Miller was so great throughout the 1990s, why didn't he ever finish in the top 15 in MVP voting? The best player on his team and almost always in the playoffs, a player widely regarded as one of the most clutch players in the league and yet not once throughout his defining decade deemed one of the 15 most valuable players in the league? It's truly bizarre.

It's even more bizarre when looking at some of the players that finished ahead of him.

Kenny Smith in 1991. Detlef Schrempf - his own Pacers teammate - in 1992. Mookie Blaylock in 1994. Dennis Rodman in 1995. Anthony Mason in 1997. Both Antoine Walker and Vin Baker in 1998.

None of them, with the possible exception of Rodman, approached the level of stardom and impact of Miller and yet all received more shine than Mr. Pacer at one point or another.

I know what you're thinking. "More evidence that writers don't know anything." Except for the fact that fans and coaches were in on it too!

More confusing is the four-year stretch from 1990-91 through 1993-94, right smack in the middle of Miller's prime during which he ranked eighth in the NBA in win shares, played in 325 out of a possible 328 games, made the playoffs all four years... and yet didn't make a single All-Star team.

In 1990-91, Miller didn't crack the top 10 among guards in the East in fan voting despite averaging over 22 points and four assists per game. Want to know who did? Ledell Eackles.

Over that four-year stretch, among the players who made it in the East include Michael Adams, Reggie Lewis, Rickey Pierce, Hersey Hawkins, Alvin Robertson, Detlef Schrempf, Larry Nance, B.J. Armstrong and Kenny Anderson. That includes the 1993-94 season when Jordan was off playing baseball and Miller led all Eastern Conference guards in scoring.

Somehow, Miller only managed to make five All-Star teams during an era where outside of Jordan, there wasn't exactly a glut of All-Star calibre two guards. This isn't like power forwards in the Western Conference in the 2000s with Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Elton Brand, Antonio McDyess and a seemingly endless parade of All-Star bigs. Not even close.

One of two things happened over the course of his entire career which is what makes it so confounding two decades later when looking back.

Either everyone in the moment was wrong, petty, misinformed, or misguided

Or there's truth to the idea that Miller's game was perhaps more style than substance and that he didn't fully earn the glowing reputation that's stood now for 15 years since he last played.

Would he be even better today in an era far more appreciative and complementary of his skills? Or would he be just another shooter, in essence marginalized due to the sheer number of players who can now do what in his time only he could really do.

"You can't tell the story of X without Player Y." You've probably heard that phrase at one time or another and when it comes to the NBA in the 90s, it's absolutely true about Miller.

Even if it's hard to know what exactly that story entails.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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