Playoff Flashback: The 1995 Eastern Conference Finals

On May 21, 1995, the Indiana Pacers finally defeated the New York Knicks in a playoff series after falling to them the previous two years. The 1994-95 season was a historic one for the Pacers. They won fifty games for the first time since their ABA years and won their first Central Division title. With the major hurdle cleared, the only thing that stood between Indiana and the NBA Finals were Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal, and the Orlando Magic, the team they had swept the year before.

They might have claimed that last year was last year, but the Magic players remembered being swept out of the 1994 playoffs by Indiana. They bounced back in the 1994-95 season and, helped by the acquisition of Horace Grant from the Bulls, won fifty-seven games, a mark that gave them home court through the conference finals. The Magic was confident entering the series, having knocked off the Chicago Bulls in six games, but, as Donald Royal explained, "I'd be lying if I said the sweep wasn't in the back of our minds."

The first five games of this series were each decided by five points or less. Both teams dominated in stretches, each made runs, but neither could take control of a game, and all of them came down to just a few possessions.

The Pacers could not maintain their momentum in Game 1 after jumping out to a 20-3 lead and lost it, 105-101. Orlando carried a precarious 1-0 lead into Game 2, where they were 0-3 as a franchise. Shaq scored 39 points and Penny Hardaway added 19 points and 15 assists, his second double-double, and Dennis Scott had 17 points (7 three pointers) to break the Game 2 curse, 119-114.

"Either they have to play Shaq one-on-one, or they'll continue to give up jump shots. I don't know what they can do to stop both." -Penny Hardaway after Game 2

The story of the first two games was not only Shaquille O'Neal's average of 35.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Orlando also got huge contributions from players like Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant when the Pacers threw double teams at O'Neal. Reggie Miller summed it up nicely after Game 2: "We've got to take away one or the other, inside or outside. They can't have both."

The series shifted to Indiana's Market Square Arena where both O'Neal and the NBA's highest scoring offense began to sputter, struggling to score 100 points in both contests. Shaq averaged only 17 points in Indiana and played thirty minutes in each game. The problem in both games was foul trouble but the situation in Game 3 prompted post-game complaints from O'Neal and the media. The Orlando Sentinel ran the headline "Shaq Can't Compete Against The Pacer's 8-Man Defense," and the Magic big man, who only had four free-throw attempts in Game 3, responded when asked about questionable calls that, "all of them were questionable."

Shaq, being hampered by fouls, made the Pacers' defense easier, but Hardaway, who had a game-high of 29 points in Game 3, refused to blame the officials. "We just didn't make the shots," said Orlando's point guard. "It's our own fault." Officiating aside, the Magic had their opportunities and the game came down to the final possessions, but the Pacers, who could not go down 3-0, squeezed out a 105-100 win to get back into the series.

"That's what the NBA playoffs are all about...rising to the occasion and hitting big shots. It kept happening..." -Reggie Miller after Game 4

If this series seemed to be building towards a crescendo, Game 4 on Memorial Day was it. The game was tied after the first period and the Pacers entered halftime with a 53-47 lead. In the second half, the Magic fought back from a 12-point deficit in the third period to take an 83-77 lead with about six minutes remaining in the game. Shaquille O'Neal again spent most of the game in foul trouble, but the Magic stayed close.

It was all building toward the most dramatic of finishes. Shaquille O'Neal fouled out with 16 points and 10 rebounds after just thirty minutes of play again and was joined shortly thereafter by Horace Grant, both forced to watch the last ninety seconds like the rest of the world, as spectators. Could the Pacers tie the series or was Orlando going home with a 3-1 series lead? It literally came down to who had the ball last.

"I was pretty proud of our team. We are fighting a lot of obstacles right now, and we gave ourselves a chance to win here (in Orlando) again." -Larry Brown after Game 5 loss

The complaints about officiating continued after Game 4 and got worse after Orlando's 108-106 Game 5 win. To start, Orlando fans were hypersensitive because many were convinced Rik Smits' winning shot took longer than 1.3 seconds. Prior to the game, O'Neal called Smits a flopper and Dennis Scott accused the officials of not letting Shaq play his game in Indiana. Shaq's 35-point, 13-rebound performance back in Orlando, likewise, facilitated complaints from Pacers coach Larry Brown after his center stayed in foul trouble and fouled out after just twenty eight minutes. "The only thing you want is consistency," said Brown. "I'll say this until I die with Rik Smits."

Both teams appeared to have exhausted their feel for the dramatic in the last two games of the series, which were blowouts, decided by a combined total of 52 points (as opposed to 17 in the previous five games). The Magic had no answer for Reggie Miller in Game 6 who scored 36, his highest total of the series, in Indiana's 123-96 win that forced Game 7 back in Orlando. In the deciding game, Orlando's defense held Miller to just 12 points and Smits was the same non-factor he was in Game 5. Shaquille O'Neal, as he had all series on his home court, put up another double-double of 25 points and 11 rebounds. The Magic outscored the Pacers, 53-36, in the second half on their way to a 105-81 game and series win.

"I'll take the burden for his loss," Miller said after the game. The Pacers had beaten their nemesis only to fall before the team that they swept a year before. It was a dissapointing end to the season with high expectations and the Pacers would not be in the conference finals again until 1998 when they fell to the Bulls in seven games. For Orlando, their impressive run ended in the NBA Finals when the Houston Rockets defeated them to win their second consecutive NBA title. The Magic would get another shot at the finals in 1996, but the Bulls, out for revenge for the 1995 loss, beat them 4-0 in the conference finals. Shaq left the next season for Los Angeles and eventual NBA championships, while the Magic declined and would not enjoy playoff success for over a decade.

All series stats here at Basketball Reference

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