I heard Lee Corso say “big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games” countless times in the 1,000 hours I played the NCAA Football video game series. It rang true for my 49 Heisman winners in the 57 national championship games during my 60-year dynasty. It rang true for Reggie Miller in the 1994 NBA Playoffs, too.
The Indiana Pacers shooting guard hit five 3-pointers on his way to a 25-point fourth quarter against the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The historic performance helped Indiana erase New York’s 12-point advantage to shell shock the Madison Square Garden crowd and give the Pacers a 3-2 series lead.
Miller’s incredible fourth quarter is legendary by itself, but it’s not what made his night so memorable. The five-time NBA All-Star had a back and forth with filmmaker Spike Lee that culminated in one of the most iconic insults in NBA history.
The Choke, or The Choke Heard Around the World, turned into Reggie Miller’s signature. It made him New York City’s public enemy number one. It made Knicks fans put all the blame on Lee. It made him redefine the Heimlich Maneuver. It made him a legend.
The story of The Choke has been told in detail many times over the years, most notably in the highly recommended ESPN 30 for 30 “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks”, but what about the collapse of the Knicks? Or should I say, bounce back?
Ironically, Miller’s choke sign came back to bite him because he and the Pacers choked the final two games away.
Reggie Miller’s Choke Gesture Sparked the New York Knicks’ Comeback in 1994
The Pacers entered Game 6 fresh off a huge comeback win on the road and with a chance to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals on their homecourt. All the momentum was on their side. As if those stakes weren’t enough motivation, Lee had the audacity to travel to Indianapolis and sit courtside. The state of Indiana was licking their chops.
The Knicks weren’t going to just roll over, though. Pat Riley rallied his troops to put up a dog fight. Patrick Ewing played bully ball down low, John Starks took on the scoring load, Charles Oakley claimed the boards. They built an 11-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, but Miller’s shooting stroke dwindled it down to a tie ball game at 91 apiece with two minutes remaining.
On the cusp of a date with the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, Miller, a 90.8% free throw shooter that season, worked his way to the foul line. He missed the first but made the second. It was all the Knicks needed. Derek Harper hit a jump shot, Stark a free throw and Harper another foul shot to build a four-point lead.
New York ended up winning 98-91. Lee was elated.
As for the Pacers, not only had Miller come up short in a crucial moment, they would have to go back to Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks were virtually unbeatable, and pull out another victory in Game 7.
They almost did, too. Indiana had a 12-point lead in the third quarter, but Ewing spearheaded an 18-9 run in the fourth and put back a Starks missed layup to give New York a 91-90 lead with 27 seconds left in the game. They didn’t relinquish the lead and ended up winning 94-90. Miller did his part, scoring 25 points and going 8 for 8 from the free-throw line despite hearing all the boos 20,000 fans could muster. This Knicks team just wouldn’t die.
So, was Reggie Miller’s choke gesture in Game 5 awesome? Absolutely. Going into MSG and sticking it to New Yorkers screaming that his sister is better than him takes balls.
However, Miller’s gesture turned out to be a comedy for Knicks fans and a tragedy for Pacers fans. To me, it boils down to his missed free throw at the end of Game 6. His inability to convert gave the Knicks a sliver of an opening, and it was all they needed to take over. Maybe Indiana’s defense is an inch tighter on Harper their next possession if they had the lead. Maybe Harper’s gassed, and his shot falls short. This Knicks team thrived with their backs against the wall. I bet they were envisioning Miller’s choke gesture in the back of their minds when they were erasing two double-digit deficits in Games 6 and 7.
Miller’s choke gesture is still an all-time moment, but it’s not nearly as impactful knowing the Pacers went on to lose the series.