- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS With prodigy Kobe Bryant unable to play because of a sprained ankle, the Los Angeles Lakers needed significant contributions from guys who have toiled in his shadow for most of the season.

But they didn't get enough to offset the big play of Reggie Miller and the unpredictable free throw shooting of MVP Shaquille O'Neal. Miller responded with 33 points, his highest output of the series, and hit crucial free throws late to give the Pacers a 100-91 victory over the Lakers in front of 18,345 at Conseco Fieldhouse. The victory pulls the Pacers to within 2-1 of the Lakers in the NBA Finals, which resume here Wednesday with Game 4. Game 5, also in Indianapolis, is Friday. No team in the history of the Finals ever has won the three middle games of the series since they went to the 2-3-2 format in 1985.

"Everyone knows how big this game was for us," said Indiana reserve guard Travis Best, who added 12 points. "No one has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit. We didn't want to fall behind that far and make it that much harder to try to get back in it."

Bryant sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of Game 2, won by the Lakers 111-104 on Friday. When he showed up at the Lakers' practice on Saturday riding into Conseco Fieldhouse on O'Neal's back, and then later never got off of his crutches, it became clear that Bryant, the first-team All-League defender and second-team All-League selection, would not play.

"I wanted to see him do some lateral slides," Jackson said. "I asked him how he felt and he said 'It hurt.' I said 'Let's save it.' It's a tough decision but I think it's better for us in the long run. He accepted it."

The Lakers were forced to replace Bryant, who is listed as day-to-day, with Brian Shaw, an 11-year veteran who saw his best years long ago.

Miller was 6-for-6 from the line in the final two minutes of the game. Miller is now 20-for-20 from the free throw line in the series. Indiana small forward Jalen Rose chipped in with 21 points. O'Neal scored 33 points and grabbed 13 rebounds but was just 3-for-13 from the line two days after attempting 39 free throws in Game 2.

"Reggie and Jalen worked hard to get off the picks tonight," Indiana coach Larry Bird said. "When they work as hard as they did it comes down to making their shots. And tonight that's just what they did."

Without Bryant in the game the Lakers lacked cohesion and spark, particularly at the defensive end. Where it had been the Pacers who seemed to play defense with concrete slippers on their feet, now it was the Lakers who were making their defensive rotations too slowly. This allowed the Pacers to twice build double-digit leads in the first half.

But it was their play at the start of the third quarter that put the Pacers in the position to pull even in this series with a win Wednesday.

After allowing the Lakers to reduce what had been an 11-point halftime lead, the Pacers found themselves clinging to a 55-50 lead after Los Angeles' Ron Harper scored on a fastbreak layup with 7:57 left in the quarter.

But this served as a wakeup call for the Pacers. Indiana rode a 14-2 run that ended with a 3-pointer from Sam Perkins to give the Pacers a 69-52 lead with 4:42 left in the game. The lead stayed in double digits the rest of the quarter and got as high as 18 points with just over a minute left in the quarter.

Before the game, Indiana coach Larry Bird said that the Pacers would not put too many new wrinkles in the offense just because Bryant was out. But Bird did have two things he sincerely wanted from his team: get Miller started early and make sure the double team reached O'Neal much quicker than it did in the first two games of the series.

Having seen his center killed in the first two games of the series by O'Neal, Bird began the game with rugged power forward Dale Davis on O'Neal instead of Smits, hoping that this would allow Smits to stay out of foul trouble and find some semblance of offense. As a result, Smits, a better offensive player than Davis but not much of a defender, went aggressively to the basket for six points in the first quarter. And the double-team, dreadfully slow in Los Angeles, did reach O'Neal much quicker this time.

Still, this only served to slow O'Neal at the start. O'Neal took just two shots in the first quarter but finished the first half with 15 points.

Miller, who like O'Neal has shown an affinity for things with the Superman emblem on them, had been anything but so far in this series. He began it with a 1 for 16 performance and followed it up by scoring just two points in the fourth quarter of Game 2.

But last night Miller came out and showed early on that he did not intend to deliver a bad game in front of the sold out Conseco Fieldhouse crowd. Averaging just 16 points in the series over the first two games - contests in which he has been outscored by the Lakers Ron Harper 33-28 through two games - Miller led all scorers with 15 points at the half.

Indiana held the Lakers to just 15 points in the first quarter on 7 for 16 shooting. Meanwhile the Pacers more aggressive style resulted in more shots (11 for 27) and eight-point lead.

However, O'Neal started to make his forays to the basket with more regularity in the second quarter, when he scored 10 points, and the Lakers in general started playing better basketball. They closed what had been a 15-point lead midway in the second quarter to just seven points with a 10-2 run. However, the Pacers restored the lead to 14 points late in the quarter on the strength of a 7-0 run capped by 3-point play by Rose. But Glen Rice reduced the cushion to 11 points at the half when he nailed an unmolested three as time ran out on the half with the Pacers up 53-42.

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