The Indiana Pacers were a pretty, pretty basketball team. Do people know that now? It all came back at once, watching the bleary video of them facing the Bulls on Boxing Day of 1995. The in-game graphics reminded viewers that the Pacers had won the Central Division the year before—Michael Jordan’s baseball-shortened comeback season—but now it was only December of the new season and Indiana was already 9.5 games behind the runaway Bulls. Still, though, the Pacers were a good team.
And they were a good-looking team, too. After a few ragged opening minutes both ways, Rik Smits took a pass from a driving Mark Jackson and knocked down a pure, lovely little jumper. Rik Smits was a pasty giant, his frame an unreasonable seven-foot-four, but when he moved it was with a giraffe’s slow-limbed grace, and the extra altitude and leverage he brought to the ball gave it a sort of blessed calm in flight. Rik Smits shooting the ball was a nice thing to see again after all these years.
All the Pacers, in fact, were nice to see. This was not so true of the Bulls. The Bulls had Luc Longley, and when Luc Longley got into foul trouble in came Bill Wennington. Phil Jackson won his titles with immortal superstars leading the way, but he always had a vexed outlook on talent. He depended on it but he didn’t want to believe in it, and the Jordanaires were that tension made flesh. How many coaches would trade the bottom two-thirds of their roster for the bottom two-thirds of this greatest Bulls team of all time? Longley, Wennington, Jud Buechler? Randy Brown?
The Pacers, by contrast, were an ideal assembly of basketball types. Smits’s aesthetically pleasing shot was only the second scoring option, and only the second prettiest. First was Reggie Miller. Old Reggie Miller has taken up more than his share of memory now, hanging craftily around to the brink of 40, picking his spots to show he could still bury his signature three-pointers. But in 1995 Reggie Miller was 30 and agile, jumping into the passing lanes for a steal or slashing for a layup. A complete player.
With him in the backcourt, also 30, was Mark Jackson, a nimble Mark Jackson, seeing and using the whole floor. Derrick McKey was at small forward, the position he was built to play. Brawny Dale Davis was at power forward, with the brawnier Antonio Davis behind him or beside him as the next big man. Ricky Pierce came off the bench to shoot without fear. Larry Brown was coaching them. Everything made sense.
Against the Bulls that night, for a while, it all worked. The Pacers were smooth and effective, and the Bulls were clunky. Ricky Pierce hit a three to make it 16-8, Indiana. Jackson hit a three. Only Michael Jordan was doing anything for the Bulls, hitting a shot after a flurry of point-blank Chicago bricks. After one quarter, it was 30-18.
The Pacers went into an even higher gear in the second quarter. Miller, who the announcers noted had gone two games without a three-pointer, buried one from deep up-top. The Bulls were down 18, and the announcers were trying to remember if Chicago had ever been down 18 before. Miller buried another long three, and it was 43-22. Ricky Pierce hit a three to make it 46-24. Phil Jackson, who we all know never called time outs, called time out.
The three-point barrage seemed a natural thing for Reggie Miller’s Pacers to do, but it wasn’t. The absolutely shocking thing about the 1995-96 Indiana Pacers, when memory is checked against facts, is that they were not a three-point shooting team. Miller had always been and would always be a three-point artist, but the Pacers, with their giant in the middle and their strongmen flanking him, belonged to an old classic tradition, in which the three-pointer was a shot reserved for rare gifted specialists or desperate situations. The Pacers shot the third-fewest three-pointers in the league that season.
That classic construction was, at that very moment, being dismantled. The 1995-96 season was part of a brief but pivotal moment in the NBA, without which the game as now played would not exist. It was the second year of a three-year run in which the league experimented with pulling in the arc of the three-point line by a full 21 inches, making the whole thing as short as the old 22-foot corner three had been. Suddenly, the specialty shot was ordinary, if you thought to take it.
The Pacers that year did not think to take it. Neither, as the tape attests, did Michael Jordan. It’s odd to realize this, to see Michael Jordan off on the far side of a historic divide. But in his last full season at the old distance, Jordan had attempted 2.9 threes per game. In 1995-96, he attempted 3.2. His feet never seemed to notice or care where the paint was on the floor; he took the shot he wanted, from 20 or 21 or 22 feet, and if the ref gave him three points, the ref gave him three points.
Scottie Pippen was the one who did the math and became a pioneer in the new world. When the line moved in, his three-point attempts jumped from 2.7 per game to 4.0, and then to 5.2. One of the abiding images of the Bulls’ second reign is that of Pippin spotting up right outside the circle, calmly measuring the distance, and firing in a low, straight three as though it were a normal part of a forward’s scoring repertoire. Chicago would make a few defensive stops, he’d pop one or two, and the score would tip eight or 10 points in the Bulls’ direction so unfussily it barely registered as a run.
The line would go back to 23'9" after the next season, but the idea had been planted. Three points would be there if you reached for them. Pippen would keep shooting more than four a game for two more years after that. Soon enough, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce would ride ugly but correct expected-value calculations into the playoffs, and eventually the Warriors would become imaginable.
(Note that Mark Jackson was playing for the team that didn’t adopt the three, while Steve Kerr shot .515 on threes off the bench for the Bulls that year.)
In Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena, though, there was already a superteam on hand, and the salient future was the near-term one. “You know the Bulls are going to make a run,” one of the announcers said.
Jordan found Ron Harper for a three, and it was 63-48. Jordan rebounded a missed three by Jackson and fired a long outlet to Dennis Rodman, who was fouled. Maybe Rodman had a tough Christmas. His weird disruptive high energy was missing, leaving only his clunky shooting. Both free throws chipped the front rim and died. Not long after, Reggie Miller ran down a missed layup near the sideline, popped a three, and stared down the Bulls bench as the scoreboard went to 66-48.
Gradually, thought, the red jerseys clamped down on the Pacers and squeezed, hounding inbounds passes and collapsing into the lane on defense. There was nothing so clean as a run: a three from Pippen, a flying one-handed jam by Jordan off a feed from Pippen, but mostly an intensifying grind. Jordan got Smits to commit his fourth foul. All the fluidity of the first half was gone.
By the fourth quarter, the lead had been chipped down to single digits. Pippen hit a pull-up three, then put a fifth foul on Smits. What had been a slow scoring night for him was suddenly closing in on, then surpassing, his season average. The lead was down to four. The crowd was alarmed.
If the Bulls had crushed all the prettiness out of the game, though, the Pacers were still tough. Smits fouled out with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting, after trading scores with Pippen down the stretch. Longley fouled out right after. The lead was rattling around from seven to five to six. Pippen went straight down the lane and put it high off the glass to make it 98-94.
And then, with 34.8 seconds on the game clock and four on the shot clock, Mark Jackson hit a three—a three that any point guard would be expected to go for, in that situation, in 2016. The lead was back to seven; the rest was fouling and attrition. Why did the Pacers beat the Bulls? One answer is that they were a solid, well-constructed team. Another answer is that they made 10 three-pointers on 21 attempts, while Chicago made 6 on 13.
Regardless, three days later, the Pacers traveled to Chicago on the back end of a back-to-back. They lost, 120-93.