ORLANDO, Fla. -- They call it The Mike Miller Role.
It’s not necessarily an affectionate moniker among the Miami Heat’s players and coaching staff. But it has certainly developed into a vital role for the team during its run to three straight NBA Finals appearances and the past two championships.
Miller used to own that job before he was reluctantly released by the Heat last summer to reduce the financial burden brought on by the league’s increasingly punitive luxury tax for teams with excessive payrolls.
When Miller was in the Miller role, it was essentially a luxury in itself.
But now, it’s become a necessity to have someone fill that job for the Heat.
On Saturday, it was Rashard Lewis' turn to emerge from the bench -- sometimes with weeks of either inactivity or months of playing very few minutes -- and fill in as a starter with almost no advance notice.
“It’s very difficult,” Lewis said Saturday. “Sometimes, you really don’t have no idea how difficult it is until you actually have to do it. But seeing how things went last year with it, I’m more prepared this year.”
Facing his former team, Lewis made the difficult task seem relatively easy when he made just his second start of the season and scored a season-high 18 points for the Heat to a 110-94 win over the Orlando Magic. Knocking down long jumpers with his unique, over-the-head slingshot release, Lewis scored 10 of the Heat’s first 21 points and got Miami going on a night when usual starting power forward Shane Battier sat out with a quadriceps injury and starting small forward LeBron James struggled to find his rhythm.
James missed eight of his 13 shots, but still flirted with a triple-double as the Heat ran away before he went to the bench late in the fourth quarter with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in 36 minutes. After missing five of his first six shots, James willingly settled into his role as a facilitator.
Instead of trying to shoot his way out of the slump and force his offense, James spent the bulk of his energy looking to set up teammates who had already established hot hands. Two, in particular, were Lewis and Chris Bosh, who matched the best shooting effort of his career by making all nine of his attempts from the field to finish with 20 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes.
It was the culmination of a balanced attack in which the Heat shot 54.1 percent from the field and had five players score in double figures while defensively holding the Magic to just 41.3 percent shooting. The game was sentimental for Lewis, who delivered a performance reminiscent of the big games he had on a regular basis in the Amway Center as a member of the Magic while playing alongside Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard on a team that reached the Finals in 2009.
Back then, Lewis was an All-Star and one of the most versatile forwards in the league. Now, after multiple knee procedures that derailed his career, Lewis has regained some of the spring in his legs and insists he’s as healthy as he’s been since he was traded by the Magic three seasons ago.
Last season, as he recovered from shockwave therapy on his knee, Lewis spent much of his time at the back end of the Heat’s rotation. That was when he watched Miller spend weeks outside of the playing rotation and suddenly get tossed into the starting lineup on occasions when an injury forced a change.
Miller had gone from forgotten man to Finals hero in that role.
Lewis is one of a handful of Heat veterans now filling in for the guy who mastered the art of filling in.
“I give all the praise to the guys that have to do that on our team,” James said. “It’s usually Rashard. It’s Mase [Roger Mason Jr.], it’s Ray [Allen]. Well, Ray gets his minutes. But it’s been mostly Rashard. He doesn’t know sometimes if he’s going to start, if he’s going to play. And sometimes he doesn’t. It’s Udonis [Haslem]. It’s J.J. [James Jones]. I commend them, because they don’t have a sense of knowing. Rashard was definitely the MVP for us tonight, for the way he was able to perform on short notice.”
Lewis relished his role. His highlight was converting a rare four-point play, when he was fouled as he made a 3-pointer from the corner in front of Orlando’s bench. There were several moments when he and Nelson got caught up in some playful trash talk.
Lewis shot 6-of-11 from the field, knocked down three 3-pointers and had four rebounds, three steals, two assists and a fourth-quarter blocked shot to thwart a Magic rally. And what will that effort guarantee Lewis heading into Sunday’s home game against Toronto?
That’s the nature of such a volatile role with the Heat. It’s day-to-day in its very nature. If Battier feels better Sunday and is available against the Raptors, Lewis could see anywhere from the 18 minutes he averages this season or no action at all.
How the Heat have managed Dwyane Wade's knee rehab this season is also a factor that determines how often Miami relies on the Miller role. Wade, who has missed eight games this season, scored 20 points on 15 shots against the Magic but hasn’t played in games on consecutive nights since mid-November.
After Saturday’s contest, Wade said he would go through his normal routine of meetings and workouts before a collective decision is made about his status for the game against Toronto. But no one on the team appreciates the value of the safety-valve role more than Wade.
“That’s one of the great things about our team,” Wade said. “There’s always a guy who has proven himself in this league that’s always ready to step up when we need it. And it’s not just one guy.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra appreciates the sacrifice required to accept that type of assignment.
“That’s part of the depth that we talk about,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not easy to have those types of guys on your bench who aren’t necessarily playing on a night-to-night basis. But they’re keeping themselves ready. And when you need them, they’re always ready to perform.”
Lewis, who averages 4.8 points and 2.1 rebounds this season, was ready from the outset.
Now, he’ll get back in line and wait for his turn to come again.
“Last year, it was a little rough on me, but this year it’s a lot easier,” Lewis said. “We know it can be any team, any guy, and any given night. You may play 20 minutes one night, or you might play five minutes. You can go five games without playing, and then you’ll be in the starting lineup that next one. That’s the system we have here. You just have to be ready.”