Mike Miller made huge contributions on Tuesday night -- both on and off the court.
MIAMI -- The real fight Mike Miller has on his hands has nothing to do with the late-game heroics he delivered in the clutch -- finally -- that helped the Miami Heat take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven East finals against the Chicago Bulls.
The true struggle Miller is coping with didn't take place in AmericanAirlines Arena -- even as he rose to the occasion in the most important game of his first season with the Heat, a 101-93 overtime victory that moved Miami one step closer to the NBA Finals.
Basketball, despite all the success and relief that came Miller's way on Tuesday night, was simply a diversion -- a much-needed one, considering what she's going through.
That's right, she.
“She's still in ICU,” Miller said as he dressed quickly after speaking to reporters, then headed toward a side door to leave the arena. “She had some complications. But it's going to be all right. She's a fighter. She's the most important thing I'm thinking about right now.”
She is Miller's week-old daughter, Jaelyn, who has been in an intensive care unit fighting an undisclosed illness that resulted from complications with his wife's delivery last Thursday. Miller said on Tuesday that his wife, Jennifer, is doing fine. The couple, who also have two young sons, remain in relatively good spirits even as they wait to see if Jaelyn might need a surgical procedure.
Not all of Miller's teammates even know what he is going through these days as he hustles back and forth from practices and games to a South Florida hospital. He wants to do his job and be there for his team at the most crucial point of their playoff push.
At the same time, Miller's closest teammates know it's far more important that he spends as much time as he can with his family as they rely on their faith, bond and love to get them through a challenging ordeal. Miller admitted before Tuesday's game that he has had “not a lick” of sleep essentially since he rushed to the hospital immediately after the Heat arrived back in Miami early Thursday morning after their Game 2 victory in Chicago.
And if Miller's routine was the same Tuesday night as it's been the previous five days, he headed directly from work back to Jennifer's side to watch over young Jaelyn.
Miller left the arena exhausted, battered and bruised after he finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, two clutch 3-pointers, an assist and a steal in 26 minutes off the bench. The Heat were not just effective when he was in the game, they were flat-out dominant.
Stat gurus covering this series marveled at Miller's plus-36, meaning the Heat outscored the Bulls 69-33 when he was on the court. It's the second-highest plus/minus figure among all players in this postseason, trailing only Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki's plus-37 during Game 4 versus the Los Angeles Lakers as the Mavericks closed out a series sweep.
Miller admitted he desperately needed a breakout game after persevering through a frustrating season that's been filled with thumb injuries, concussion symptoms and other ailments that have contributed to arguably the least-productive season of his 11-year career.
But this series against the Bulls has represented a resurgence of sorts for Miller, particularly since Jaelyn's birth.
“It's been a long time coming,” Miller said. “I've been waiting for this. Obviously, it was a big game for us at home. It was fun being a part of it. It's a rhythm game, and unfortunately for me, with injuries, I really haven't been in a great rhythm. Tonight, I made some big shots at big moments.”
He also made some big plays, especially in the fourth quarter.
Big would describe the 3-pointer Miller nailed at the 10:43 mark that pulled the Heat to within 69-68.
Bigger would describe the jumper he knocked down from 21 feet to give the Heat a 78-77 lead with 4:25 remaining. A minute later, Miller hit a floater to tie the game at 80-80.
But his biggest play was the product of the defense and hustle that have gotten him through all those nights when his shot betrayed him. The same grit and determination that kept Heat coach Erik Spoelstra going back to Miller even after poor performances were the same two elements that allowed him to snag the most important rebound of the game when Derrick Rose missed a contested jumper that could have won it for the Bulls in regulation.
Chicago had been dominant at times on the offensive glass this series. So even after Rose's miss, there was an opportunity for the Bulls to win the game with one of the many putbacks they had been accustomed to getting.
But Miller established position, clutched the ball with the game tied 85-85 and didn't move until he heard the buzzer. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh scored all the Heat's points in overtime. But it was the boost provided by the two other members of Miami's high-profile free-agent class -- Miller and forward Udonis Haslem -- who did the dirty work to get them there.
Miller didn't score a point or even attempt a shot in the extra period. But there is no question that his best and most important work came in overtime.
The overtime that followed the game, that is.
There is no player in the locker room closer to Miller than Haslem, his former roommate during their playing days at the University of Florida. When the youngest of Haslem's two sons was born with a breathing disorder and required additional hospital care, Miller checked on Haslem to help him get through a difficult situation.
Now that Miller is going through what Haslem said is an even more serious situation as a parent, Haslem has been there to help support his teammate, close friend and, “basically, my brother” during these past few tough days and nights.
“I'm calling and texting him all the time, just to be there and check on him,” Haslem said Tuesday night after Miller had already left the arena. “With my situation, I kind of know what he's going through. You can't think about anything else but your child. Mike needed something like this, a game like this. People don't always know what you're going through out there. But when you can let basketball be your outlet, and you come through to help your team win a big game, it's a great feeling.”
Then, Haslem paused before he spoke again.
“After that, you get right back to dealing with real life,” he said. “He's my friend, my family, before anything else. You just want to say or do anything you can to support him and his wife so much.”
Heat guard Mario Chalmers said he saw a different, more relaxed, less hesitant version of Miller on Tuesday.
“Sometimes, when you're going through some tough things off the court, you come in here and get your mind off the problems in your life," Chalmers said. "He knows he's never away from family, whether it's his family at home or his family right here [on the team].”
Part of it is just going with the flow, James said.
"He just played free," James said of Miller. "Everything that he gave us was what we always expected out of him. He didn't think about it."
Miller had a wide grin on his face when he emerged from the shower, draped in a towel, and saw dozens of reporters and cameras crowded around his locker.
He was an impact player again. He was worthy of a story.
“Glad to see y'all again,” Miller joked. “It's been a while.”
Miller seemed almost embarrassed by all the attention.
He was there. And then he was gone.
The most important role Miller played Tuesday night wasn't that of a long-struggling Heat sharpshooter who finally found his stroke and came through big on the job. It was being a concerned father who darted out of the arena to be by his daughter's side.
Jaelyn's birth has led to a rebirth of sorts for Miller on the court. She doesn't know anything about the version of her dad who has toiled through a tough season. But he's found his role and rhythm since she arrived.
On Tuesday night, Miller was a finisher for the Heat.
But he's been even more clutch as a father, relentlessly operating on little rest.