MIAMI -- It’s either the shot or the laugh.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade can’t figure out which of the two he misses more about former teammate Mike Miller. For at least one night, though, Wade is certain he doesn't want to experience either Miller’s laugh or shot much on Friday.
That’s when Miller, unsung hero of the past two NBA Finals for the Heat, returns with the Memphis Grizzlies to face his former team at AmericanAirlines Arena. It’s Miller’s first appearance back in Miami since the Heat waived him with the league’s amnesty clause in a shrewd financial move last summer that still has his former teammates unhappy with the team’s decision.
But the organization hopes to leave any hard feelings in the past Friday, and will use the occasion to present Miller his 2013 championship ring and also honor him with a minute-long video tribute before the start of the Heat’s game against the Grizzlies.
“You have a connection, and it’s special from that standpoint,” Wade said of Miller, who was part of the Heat’s 2010 free-agency signing class highlighted by LeBron James and Chris Bosh. “He was my locker mate. Obviously, his unbelievable shooting ability is something that not many people have, but just his infectious laugh and how he was in the locker room, we miss that. But hopefully we don’t hear him laugh at all when we see him [Friday night].”
Even though the Heat severed ties with Miller three seasons into his five-year contract, he’s far more fond of the time he spent in Miami than he may have been offended by the abrupt ending. Days before Miller was released, Heat president Pat Riley told reporters he had no intention of waiving him. As part of the onetime amnesty clause, the Heat still paid Miller all of what remained on his $30 million deal, but that money no longer counts toward the team’s salary cap and lowers the luxury-tax burden.
There were also reports last October that Miller had contemplated filing a civil suit against the Heat for allegedly introducing him to a man accused of swindling Miller and other players out of millions in a failed business investment. If there were any ill feelings on Miller’s behalf, they've since thawed.
“That’s a special place for me,” Miller said as the Grizzlies prepared to travel to Miami. “Obviously, I was only there for three years, but it’s going to be where a lot of my professional memories come from. That means a lot to me. You grow to be a brotherhood when you go through what we did. It’s tough not being with those guys right now, but I've got a new family here now and we've got a lot of goals.”
Considering the current predicament of both teams, there’s only so much room for nostalgia Friday.
The Heat (46-20) have lost six of the past nine games in the midst of their roughest patch of the season as they try to balance rest and regaining a consistent rhythm heading into the playoffs. There are mitigating factors that make this process a major challenge for Miami.
With 16 games remaining, the Heat are three games behind Indiana in the conference standings and are virtually locked into the No. 2 seed. Secondly, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been committed to the team’s maintenance program designed to get Wade and center Greg Oden, in particular, through the final stretch of the regular season without any setbacks in their recovery from knee issues.
And then there’s also the matter of finding moments to rest LeBron James, as was the case Wednesday when he sat out the loss in Boston, to ensure the four-time MVP is rejuvenated for the postseason. It’s in times such as these when the Heat in previous seasons had turned to Miller as a spot-duty starter to help fill the void when either James or Wade recovered from injuries or simply needed a night off.
Instead, filling what Heat players have affectionately called the “Mike Miller role” has been a struggle for Miami all season. The Heat have sifted through Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen, Roger Mason Jr., Michael Beasley and Toney Douglas at varying stages of the season. But not all players have been able to handle the physical or psychological challenges that come with bouncing between extended weeks of inactivity on the bench and starting games on short notice and providing an immediate boost.
Coincidentally, it’s no longer the type of role Miller has had to maintain in Memphis.
In total contrast to his injury-plagued Heat tenure, Miller has been the definition of durable as the lone Grizzlies player yet to have missed a game this season. The veteran swingman is the league’s fifth-leading 3-point shooter at 44.6 percent for Memphis (40-27), which is among four teams battling for the final three Western Conference playoff spots.
Golden State, Dallas, Memphis and Phoenix are within three games of one another with less than a month remaining in the regular season. So there should be a sense of urgency amid Friday’s reunion as the Grizzlies look to remain in the postseason mix and the Heat try to regain championship rhythm.
Miller contributed to that championship chemistry during each of the Heat’s two title runs. He set a franchise Finals record by making seven 3-pointers in the Game 5 series-clinching victory against Oklahoma City in 2012. Last season, a strong shooting performance in Game 3 against San Antonio propelled Miller into the starting lineup for the last four games of the Finals. His shooting tapered off after the promotion, but he finished the seven-game series shooting 61.1 percent from 3-point range.
“He played a major part,” Bosh said. “His contributions to this team were legendary. I wish he were still here. We miss him a lot. Just what he did for us was huge, and we wouldn't have done it without him.”
Bosh said it’s still stunning Miller was a casualty because of measures taken by Riley and owner Micky Arison to reduce the team’s tax penalty by at least $15 million for this season. The NBA’s more punitive tax measures went into effect with the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, a year after the Heat’s free-agency overhaul.
The Heat could face more difficult roster and financial decisions in the coming offseason, with James, Wade and Bosh each able to opt out of their contracts and become free agents in July.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Bosh said. “Nobody wants to talk about the business side of basketball, whether it’s from the front office or the players’ point of view. We wish it wasn't like that. If it wasn't such a business, [Miller] would still be here.”
Miller is one of three players from the Heat’s 2010 mega-class no longer with the team. The Heat traded center Joel Anthony to Boston earlier this season in a similar move to reduce the luxury tax. A postgame locker room that had been in a down mood after Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics came to life with jokes and laughter when Anthony popped in to catch up with former teammates after the game.
Those sentiments will continue Friday with Miller.
“When I signed there, it was to test myself,” Miller said. “I made a lot of shots and scored a lot of points in this league before I went there. But it was to test myself to see how I would react in big moments. To go into that situation, on that stage, and make shots means a lot to me. And, obviously, to win rings means a lot to the group. For me to be able to collect on the second one [Friday], it’s going to be fun.”
Then, for the next 48 minutes, it’s back to business.
“After the game, the connection resumes,” Wade said of Miller. “That’s always going to be there. Anyone who has [gone] through that and won championships, you’re always going to have that.”