Reggie Miller Talks Playoffs, Paying It Forward, And Calling Games With Joy

Reggie Miller spent 18 seasons playing for the Indiana Pacers on his way to a Hall of Fame career on the court, and this year marks his 18th season calling games for TNT, inking an extension earlier this year to remain part of the network’s lead booth alongside Kevin Harlan.

As such, the 58-year-old Miller has spent the vast majority of his life in the NBA, and what is maybe the most remarkable thing is his joy and love for basketball has not waned in the slightest. While some analysts grow jaded or frustrated by the natural evolution of the NBA, Miller simply marvels at what the sport has become. It perhaps helps that the game has shifted towards the thing he was defined by — three-point shooting — but even as his records get surpassed, no one has cheered on the current generation more than Miller.

“It’s my job to not only move the needle, but to pass the game along and put it in better hands,” Miller told DIME over the phone this week. “Why would I be bitter? Why would I be upset? Why would I have a chip on my shoulder watching a Stephen Curry break Ray Allen who broke my [record]? Why? The game is in such great hands. These players are unbelievable. Pass it and pay it forward. I feel it’s my duty and job to highlight these young players, because it was the very much the same as me.

“Larry Bird was the guy I really emulated my game after. I wanted to be Larry Bird. I’d practice all his shots, to then have the opportunity to go against him. You’ve got to pay the game forward. And I’m not going to be one of those players that, ‘In my day, this is how I…’ No! I’m not going to be a ‘kids get off my lawn’ type of analyst. That’s just not me. You’ve got to pay it forward.”

This year’s playoffs are particularly exciting because it feels so fresh. The guys the league has been built around for decades — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry — have either missed the playoffs or are on lower seeds battling young, ascendant forces in the league. You have the Nuggets, looking to cement their place as the new dominant team in the league, the Celtics, looking to finally reach the pinnacle, and a host of challengers hoping to taste a deep playoff run for the first time.

That has only raised Miller’s ever-present excitement in a first round filled with intriguing matchups. On Wednesday, he’ll be in Oklahoma City for Game 2 between the Thunder and Pelicans (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT) after an epic defensive battle in the opener saw OKC escape with a 94-92 win.

“What a fun matchup of our future teams,” Miller said. “We’re seeing that with Minnesota versus Phoenix, too. You have two young teams that kind of want to make claim, like, we’re next. You’ve got a team that has the overall best record in a loaded Western Conference. For OKC to get the overall number one seed with an average age of what 26, 27? That is remarkable. You’ve got an MVP candidate who is scratching on the door of superstardom in Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander].”

On the Pelicans side, they’re not operating on all cylinders with Zion Williamson out, but it’s still a team loaded with young talent that’s looking to break through with a series win for the first time since Anthony Davis’ departure. Ahead of Game 2, Miller is particularly interested to see how Brandon Ingram responds to a rough opener.

“When you don’t have a ton of playoff experience, it’s that baptism by fire sometimes. And we’re kind of seeing that [with Ingram],” Miller said. “We saw that in that Lakers Play-In game. He didn’t even sniff the court the last seven minutes, and Willie Green didn’t say that was because of a minutes restriction. He just wasn’t playing well enough to be on the floor. But he bounced back because he had another opportunity and played fantastic to get them that number eight seed. So it’s baptism by fire.

“And look, Lu Dort is one of the premier wing defenders in our game. And what a matchup — I think what a series this is going to be. I still see this going six or seven games and Brandon is going to have plenty of opportunities to answer the bell versus Lu Dort and the Thunder. So you’ve got to understand that one of these things as a young player, and I went through this as well, the situations that you’re gonna go through are 100 percent different than what occurred during the regular season. You put them in the vault, you replay them, and when you face those situations again — because trust me, he will, because Lu Dort is going to be up his ass in Game 2, Game 3, and all series. How do you manufacture it and how do you assess it and how can you grow from it? That’s what I want to see. Is there growth coming from this?”

Getting to see these stories unfold is why Miller can’t help but keep coming back, and that joy for the game is his defining characteristic as a broadcast analyst. For all the criticism he faces from fans, who grow tired of most national TV analysts eventually, no one can question his genuine enthusiasm and love of basketball.

That same fervor is shared by his play-by-play partner in Harlan, and the duo create an infectious energy on the call that reaches a fevered pitch in big moments. Calling games alongside Harlan is a treat for Miller, who notes his partner has “the best” voice for big moments. Most recently, the two were on the call alongside Jamal Crawford for Denver’s thrilling comeback win over the Lakers in Game 2 of their first round series, as Jamal Murray ripped out the Lakers hearts with a fading midrange dagger over Davis. As the shot went through the basket and Murray fell into the bench, Harlan roared “GOOOOOOD, THE NUGGETS HAVE WON” and then the entire fell silent as the Denver crowd erupted.

As Miller explains, that was a conscious choice, as he threw his hands in front of his partners to make sure they all laid out and let the scene speak for itself.

“I don’t know if you can notice how long we went silent after the big shot because I threw my arms in front of Harlan and Jamal,” Miller said. “Because at that point, you know Harlan has the best voice for moments like that. And you can hear it in the beginning that the Nuggets win, and then I threw my arms out there, because sometimes less is more. And in that moment, it had to be less, because we wanted people at home to understand and hear the euphoria in that building.”

That’s a lesson Miller and every broadcaster has to learn to be successful. It’s hard as someone paid to talk to know when to, in his words, “shut up.” As he explains, when a play is live, that’s the play-by-play’s moment, so the analysts clear the stage and wait for the replays when they get to shine. In the in between, it’s a matter of feel and being present in the moment, and even with the best voice in the game when it comes to rising to the occasion alongside him, in that particular spot, nothing more needed to be said.

“Whether it’s a game-winning, huge moment shot like we saw last night, or a fan throwing a chicken wing on the floor in the Sacramento game [laughs], there’s never been a moment that Harlan hasn’t risen to the occasion,” Miller said. “And I think we are both Type-A players and analysts. We over-prepare, even if the game is a blowout, you want to have information to talk about. And I think there’s never been a moment that has surprised him because he is so well-prepared. So it makes you raise your level of game in terms of being prepared and being on point and being present. Sometimes I hear some analysts, they may drift away. We try to stay in the moment.”

Miller is certainly not perfect as an analyst. He will flub a name or ask a silly question at time, but that’s part of talking for hours on end. His job is to offer his thoughts in that moment, and while there are certainly head-scratchers — he came under criticism the other night after he asked if a team should miss a free throw that would put them up four because the other team didn’t have a timeout — he’s confident enough to give his thoughts ahead of time, rather than holding back to second guess. In Denver, that meant noting he liked the choice by Denver to not call timeout as Murray brought the ball across midfloor.

Miller is aware of the criticsm he receives, but knows you simply can’t please everybody. That’s especially true as a national broadcaster. When the goal is to strike a balance, fans are always going to think you’re going too far in praising the other team and not giving enough love to theirs. For Miller, as long as he’s hearing it from both sides, he’s doing well.

“The best compliments I have are on social media when I hear fans saying, ‘You’re such a homer for the Lakers,’ and then the very next comment is, ‘Why are you all on the bandwagon of the Nuggets?’ I’ve done my job,” Miller said. “That’s exactly what I want to hear. I want the criticism coming from both sides, which is 50-50 after every game. That means it was fair and balanced. The best compliments I ever get is, ‘Oh my God. Why are you all over LeBron?’ Or, ‘Do you live in Denver? Are you a Nuggets fan?’ That is the best! Those are the best. Thank you. That means I’m doing my job.”

It makes sense that Miller would take that approach to criticism. He has always been a showman. As a player, he soaked up the love from adoring fans in Indiana, but delighted just as much in basking in the boos when he went on the road. That desire to put on a show carries over to the broadcast booth, where he just wants to pay it forward and bring that same joy to those watching at home.

“As a player, I always wanted to perform,” he said. “I assumed in my head, there was a kid, boy or girl, coming either at home — at the time Conseco Fieldhouse — or on the road, that had heard about Reggie Miller. Heard about these threes. Heard about the trash talking. Heard about him being so skinny, not backing down to anymore. And I wanted to put on a show for that little boy or girl. It’s very much the same way how I approach my broadcasting. I’m at center court watching these unbelievable athletes perform at the highest level. Yes, we want to make this enjoyable for your casual fan, but not alienate your hardcore fans who are there for the stats, the runs, the history of the game. So you got to be able to merge both of them.

“I think Kevin and I, over time, we’ve built up a great cadence and rhythm, and we work well off of one another. Cause we’re both historians, but we both yet love to have a good time to make sure everyone around us does, too. Like, you should see the fans that are courtside that can hear us and see how animated we are, because I love the game. And I love calling the games, because at times you’ve got to pinch yourself. I was in these moments as a player, though you can dictate it more — which was great, because you’re forced to the action — and as an analyst, you’re waiting for that moment to happen, so you can capture it in only the way that you know how. And that’s with enthusiasm, with joy.”