Reggie Miller And The 1996 Indiana Pacers Can Empathize With Joel Embiid And The Sixers

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Joel Embiid took a frightening fall on March 29 when teammate Markelle Fultz ran into him. He’ll miss two-to-four weeks after surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone, and the Eastern Conference semifinals start on April 30. The playoffs start on April 14.

If he doesn’t come back until the later end of that range, that’s a whole round of basketball that Joel Embiid might not be around for, the first playoff basketball of Joel’s career and the first postseason run for Philly since The Process took hold.

That’s junk-o timing. Without Embiid on the floor this season the Sixers are an average defensive team and a crappy offensive one. Suddenly they’ll be charged with contributing playoff-level basketball for four games or more in the first round without their sterling center.

Average defensive teams and crappy offensive ones don’t typically last very long in the playoffs, presuming they make it at all. Good thing Embiid’s 76ers could have seven games in the first round to space this out.

Reggie Miller only got five.

Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers went 52-wins strong in 1995-96, No. 6 in offense and Pacer-ish on the other end. The aging team suddenly ceased creating turnovers in Larry Brown’s third season with the club, falling to 13th defensively despite all the hallmarks of a clutch-and-moan 1990s team.

Miller was in a free agent year and Brown’s permanence was always in question, but the group beat the Bulls twice (once fairly) during Chicago’s 72-win season and seemed as settled as anyone to act as the sturdy also-rans as the East’s third seed in the 1996 playoffs.

Then, because this is 1996, Otis Thorpe went and ran right into Reggie Miller:

Sanford Kunkel, the team’s doctor, said Miller suffered his concussion and possibly sprained his neck when he was struck by Thorpe’s knee. Kunkel described the injury as “postconcussive syndrome” and said Miller would be evaluated after a night in the hospital. He said he was “a little nauseous and a little sleepy” and was doubtful for Monday’s game with Charlotte.

“The next few days he may not feel like himself,” Kunkel said. “The next 24 hours will tell.”

The next 24 hours told Miller to get his ass into surgery:

“Everything went absolutely perfect,” Kunkel said of the 30-minute reconstruction of Miller’s right orbit. “There were no complications, nothing out of the ordinary.”

There were a ton of complications. Reggie got smacked on April 13, and the playoffs were due to start less than two weeks later.

Reggie had a weird career, he was 30 by 1996 but only a three-time All-Star. Miller was raised in California, made famous after bouts against New York at the peak of Madison Square Garden’s thirst for volume, yet Miller wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as the teammates on the All-Star squads he’d only recently become a familiar part of.

Space Jam, for instance, was released in 1996 after much anticipation: Michael Jordan spent the late summer of 1995 working out against heaps of NBA stars, including Miller, while shooting the vehicle. Reggie could have stayed West but instead settled for a left-turn: Channel 13’s late-night programming lineup.

The Q ratings bonanza that is summertime, on weeknights, in Indianapolis:

The Pacers were similarly overlooked.

Chicago had Jordan back and a title in its sights, yet Orlando spent most of 1995-96 loudly confident in its Eastern defense. The Hawks acquired Christian Laettner at the trade deadline, mindful that a surprising postseason run could lend credibility to the franchise’s stash of free agent cash. Choosey-types lined up with Cleveland, “the East’s top defensive club” at 88.5 points allowed per game.

The Knicks shook up the organization three times that season. That’s an entire decade for New York, and there was a tacit understanding that the eventual champs would at some point have to work through Anthony Mason’s elbows on the way toward the seeming civility of the Western Conference and the title round.

The Pacers just won a ton of games, and per his custom, Miller played in nearly all of them until Thorpe and Allan Houston and Reggie’s face all leaned into the same loose ball near the half-court of a building that doesn’t even exist anymore.

Let’s pause for a station break.

With Miller out, the Pacers shifted Haywoode Workman into a lineup that already featured Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey, Dale Davis and Rik Smits. It was pretty brutal, but this was also the mid-1990s — a time in our history where the answer to Matt Geiger was, of course, George Zidek.

Still, Indiana won three of four regular season games to end 1995-96 with Reggie resting under covers. This included an 89-88 triumph over Cleveland on the final night of the regular season, a contest that featured 79.1 sparkling possessions laid out by Mike Fratello, in tribute to one of the hits of the day.

The playoffs set to tip a dozen days after Reggie’s hit, nine days after he was sent home to “rest for at least a week before working out” by Dr. Sanford Kunkel. The Hawks were the opening round opponent, a Lenny Wilkens-coached squad paced in scoring by Steve Smith. Nobody cares about the Hawks, though. Nobody ever has.

The Pacers weren’t bothered by the Hawks or Bulls or even the Knicks that year. It was the Magic they wanted back at.

Indiana fell to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995, a seven-game series that the Magic took rather lightly considering the time of season. Just 24 hours prior to Miller’s face meeting its doom a season later, his Pacers secured perhaps the team’s finest win of the season: Indy downed the Magic on April 12, in Orlando, by a 111-101 score.

Orlando ran 39-2 at home in 1994-95 and began 1995-96 with a 33-game winning streak in their home whites prior to Shaquille O’Neal’s free agent fulminations taking over by April. The Pacer defeat marked the Magic’s fourth loss in six tries in a building that for years had felt so snug, and secure.

Orlando had its eye off the ball. Miller scored 29 in Indiana’s road win, he hit six three-pointers and shared the court with Rik Smits’ 22 points.

Smits, at that time, was the only prominent NBA center that Shaquille O’Neal could not muster genuine enmity toward: Smits never bogusly blew Shaq off for an autograph, Rik wasn’t taken in the same draft class as O’Neal, his name didn’t rhyme with “But-kas.”

This frustration plus Rik’s own accurate skillset provided endless frustration for the Magic. Tree Rollins would not have inked his last two NBA contracts had it not been for (what Orlando thought he could do with) Rik Smits.

The top of that year’s playoff bracket was established early in 1995-96, with Chicago’s immediate rise and O’Neal’s injured thumb the Pacers knew by Christmas that they’d have a righteous crack at Orlando in the second round. Now the first round was suddenly a problem.

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The Hawks were fine in 1995-96, but the club was in another one of those transition years, its third in a row as the club cycled through heroes from Dominique-to-Manning-to-Mutombo.

Ken Norman had been kicked to the end of the bench by Wilkens during the middle of the season. The two hated each other and it was hilarious. Spud Webb was back on the team, fun for that year’s video game enthusiasts, and most of the roster was on expiring contracts. Atlanta lost three of four to the Pacers that year.

After fielding either Workman or rookie Fred Hoiberg in the starting lineup to end Indiana’s regular season, Larry Brown chose veteran Ricky Pierce for Miller’s slot for Game 1. Pierce would turn 37 that August, and Steve Smith turned him for 27 in the seventy-nine possession game, a road playoff win for Atlanta.

God help anyone that watched this game, on that particular Thursday evening in 1996, instead of this programming.

The Pacers won Game 2 in Indiana with Pierce remaining in the lineup, and the series shifted to Atlanta. It was around this time that the league began to develop interest in its own network, an “NBA TV.”

Derrick McKey led the Pacers with scoring with 13, my lord, in Indiana’s Game 3 loss. Smits scored 17 in a Game 4 win, extending a series that by this time only deserved to be viewed by Larry Brown and the surviving group of assholes that decided to put the World Series on at night.

We’d get a Game 5, back when things were best-of five, and Reggie Miller would be around for it.

It was warned that Miller would suffer from double vision for up to two months, and yet he was back on the court just 22 days after his head collided with two Detroit Pistons. Reggie’s surgically-reconfigured head would be protected simply by the sort of shades that Vinny Castilla would wear when he was hungover.

Miller played in a style that you’ll recall, the older version of himself that helped propel the Pacers into the Finals in 2000. He swung that way because he was tired, and out of shape, yet he scored 27 points on 17 shots.

After rookie Alan Henderson popped Miller on a drive (Reggie’s retaliatory elbow would earn the Pacers a technical foul), Reggie asked Mark Jackson to clean his glasses. The Hawks won, though. Mookie Blaylock hit five three-pointers and future free agents Matt Bullard and Sean Rooks combined for 18 bench points for Atlanta.

It was just a random, 89-87, Eastern Conference game. And the Pacers — with the Davis Brothers and Mark Jackson and Larry Brown and Rik Smits playing at home — couldn’t pull it out.

Reggie Miller’s Willis Reed Moment, in his own building, ended with the Atlanta Hawks winning the series.

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The Magic and Shaquille O’Neal, spurred on by the presence of Christian Laettner (drafted in the same year), went on to sweep the Hawks in the second round before bowing to the Bulls in the Eastern finals. A healthy Pacers team could have toppled those Magic, distracted as they were, and provided the Bulls with a nasty Conference finals fight. The Bulls weren’t exactly pain-free in the month of May, themselves.

There’s no telling what that sort of showing could have created.

The Pacers, forward-thinking as always, dumped an aging Jackson on Denver soon after the defeat to the Hawks. The move brought the team Jalen Rose while clearing minutes for Travis Best to learn point guard under Workman. Haywoode tore his ACL four games into 1996-97, though, while Brown clashed with whatever seemed new to him. The Pacers missed the playoffs.

That low point created room for Brown to leave, and Larry Bird to enter. It moved for the lottery addition of Austin Croshere, the space for Rose to bloom and a 2000 Finals visit after two deep playoff runs in 1998 and 1999.

An upset of Orlando and second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals showing in 1996 could have delayed Indiana’s eventual parting with Brown. The deal for Rose (which included Ricky Pierce) may never have taken shape, among others, and Reggie Miller’s genuine dalliance with the Knicks that summer might instead have been laughed out of cell phone range.

Miller was going to sign a contract with the team that lost in the second round? After Indianapolis just got a Pizzeria Uno?

Sometimes it isn’t a butterfly. A lot of times, we’ve found, it’s turned out to be Otis Thorpe.

Kelly Dwyer produces The Second Arrangement, now featuring near-daily Behind the Boxscores in most episodes, at tsa.substack.com. New subscription plans start at $5 a month!