SAN ANTONIO—Moments after getting his championship ring on the night this NBA season opened last October, Mike Miller walked to midcourt, grabbed a microphone and addressed the delirious crowd.
“The journey that starts tonight is going to be even more challenging,” Miller said.
At the time, Miller had no idea how prophetic those words would seem.
Stuck on the Miami Heat bench for much of the year, laughing on the outside as little more than a coping mechanism designed to hide his frustration, Miller is getting plenty of time again in these NBA Finals. A star of last year’s title series — he made his first seven 3-point tries of Game 5, the clinching win against Oklahoma City — Miller is relishing the chance to contribute to perhaps a second straight championship.
“It’s definitely been a good experience, but we’ve got a lot of basketball left,” Miller said.
Miller made all three of his 3-point attempts Sunday night in Miami’s 103-84 victory that tied the series against the San Antonio Spurs at one win apiece. Game 3 is at San Antonio on Tuesday night.
If the current trend continues, Miller will be the first sub off the bench for coach Erik Spoelstra. Over a 2½-month stretch earlier this season, Miller saw first-quarter minutes exactly once. He’s now gotten them in each of Miami’s last three games, after taking the role that had been filled by Shane Battier, who was sent to the bench because of a shooting slump.
“The little things,” Spoelstra said when asked what Miller brings to the table. “He does a lot of those things. Very similar to Shane. Some of those things don’t show up in a box score, but his effort, his hustle, extra efforts, closeouts. He has a knack for being around the ball. If you see a collision or loose ball, Mike likely is involved with it somehow, some way. You add all those up, those are winning plays.”
And he still can shoot, which helps.
Miller’s three shots from Game 2 might not seem like much, but they all came at key times. His first gave Miami a lead in the second quarter, and his two others helped fuel what became a 33-5 run.
Miller was on the floor for all but the very first field goal in that massive Heat spurt. He replaced Dwyane Wade with 3:11 left in the third quarter, with the Heat up 63-62 pending a free throw by Mario Chalmers. When Wade returned and Miller came out with 7:43 left to play, it was 91-67.
Wade’s locker is next to Miller’s, and at least once this year, Wade asked Spoelstra to find Miller some more minutes. The way Wade sees it, having Miller around without a spot for him to play has been “an amazing luxury” for the Heat this season.
“I love it. I love seeing Mike Miller on the floor,” Wade said. “I’m just as excited to see him as I am when I’m on the basketball court, because I know what he can bring to this team. And not even just his ability to shoot the ball, but his ability to rebound. Mike is an underrated playmaker as well.”
The problem with Miller’s time has been that he’s playing behind guys like Wade, Battier and Ray Allen.
Good luck cracking into that rotation. Spoelstra was up-front and direct with Miller from the outset.
“He told me from the beginning,” said Miller, who entertained retirement talk after battling about a half-dozen injury issues last season but is now feeling as good as he has in years. “If you look around this locker room, I’m playing behind three Hall of Famers. So he’s told me from the beginning that it’s going to be spot and when he calls on my number I’ve just got to deliver.”
The Heat’s “Little 12″ — as they tend to call themselves in a nod to Miami’s “Big Three” of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh — have been delivering.
“That’s when they’re at their best. That’s when every team is at their best,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “When the perimeter is making shots, when the bench is playing well, when you have a lot of contributors, that helps you win basketball games.”
Look for more of it in Game 3.
Obviously, and wisely, the Spurs’ defensive game plan will revolve around James, Bosh and Wade. And what just about every team has encountered over the last three years is the pick-your-poison problem of either overloading on Miami’s superstars and playing off the role players, or trying to play someone like James 1-on-1 and rolling some very tricky dice.
“When Mike gets the ball, our shooters got the fluorescent light on our team,” James said. “They’re not even allowed to pass. When Ray and Mike get the ball, they have to shoot it. No matter how close the defenders are, they have to shoot it. When you have that leeway and that confidence, you just have to let it go.”
It’s expected that the Heat will try to address their luxury-tax issues over the summer, and Miller knows that he’s making too much money — about $13 million over the next two years — to have his game-night attire essentially adhered to the bench. He could be traded. He could be the player the Heat cut loose through their still-available amnesty provision. Or he could stay.
All that might get sorted out in the coming weeks. For now, there’s a second ring for Miller to chase.
“I’ve got a lot of basketball left,” Miller said. “It’s the best I’ve felt in five years. That might have something to do with the fact I haven’t played. Sometimes there’s some light at the end of the tunnel even when you’re frustrated. So I feel great and, knock on wood, it stays that way.”