Andre Miller, the NBA's oldest active player, is savvy enough to find just the right moments to effectively flex two decades of wit and wisdom in his latest basketball role.
The 38-year-old Washington Wizards point guard recently surveyed the scene in Orlando, quickly analyzed the options unfolding before him with little time to spare and methodically made his move.
"Is that Corn Flakes on top of the macaroni and cheese, man?" Miller said as he stepped past that particular dish on the postgame buffet in the visitors locker room Wednesday night. "How can they put Corn Flakes on macaroni and cheese? Nah, man. Never seen that in all my years in the league."
It turned out to be Miller's second-best pass of the night, falling behind only the perfectly executed lob he delivered on an inbounds play to Bradley Beal with 0.8 seconds left for the game-winning layup to help the Wizards escape with a 91-89 victory against the Magic.
At least two things are becoming clear amid Washington's emotionally charged week: One, never risk encrusting a man's macaroni and cheese. And two, never count out the Wizards late in games.
Tied in the loss column with Toronto and Atlanta, the Wizards (15-6) have blended a stifling defense with late-game heroics to muscle their way to the brink of leading the East a quarter of the way through the season. It's an effective combo that should be as simple as macaroni and cheese, and the Wizards see no reason to mess with the mix entering Friday's visit from the streaking L.A. Clippers.
"We've been having some games where we put ourselves in tough positions, but every game is not going to be perfect," Miller said of the Wizards' nightly dances with danger as they push through their best start in 40 years. "We're going to have some ups and downs and we just find ways to pull these games out. We always talk about just staying calm and positive in those types of situations."
Miller has played for six teams in 16 seasons, and couldn't immediately think of any that matched the Wizards' balance of veteran experience, young talent, defensive tenacity, offensive diversity and resilience in overwhelming circumstances. And that just counts what they've shown since Sunday.
The playful jabs, jokes and joy in a locker room in Orlando that seemed more like a weekend frat house provided a scene in stark contrast to the physically spent and emotionally drained Wizards 48 hours earlier at home after a 133-132 double-overtime win against Boston.
Wizards star point guard and fledgling MVP candidate John Wall rescued the team Monday. After scoring 10 straight points in overtime and finishing with 26 points and a career-high 17 assists, Wall broke down in tears during a postgame interview as he dedicated the effort to 6-year-old Miyah Telemaque-Nelson, a cancer patient he befriended months ago who died hours before the game.
A week of extreme runs, rallies and reunions has seen the Wizards nearly overcome a 25-point deficit in the third quarter during Sunday's loss in Boston only to come back a day later and squander all of a 23-point lead in the third at home before holding off the Celtics in Monday's double-overtime thriller.
After facing his former team twice in a span of 36 hours to start the week, veteran forward Paul Pierce is now set to face Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who guided Pierce and the Celtics to the 2008 NBA title. In other words, just another day at the office for a Wizards team that rarely seems fazed by the moment.
On Monday, Washington trailed by seven in the second overtime and stormed back. On Wednesday, the Wizards were behind by five with a minute left in regulation and found a way again. Wall explained what went through his mind when he looked up at the clock with his team down in the final minute.
"That's a lot of time -- like eight or nine possessions, in my opinion," said Wall, who in three games this week has averaged 21.3 points, 14 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals on 53.2 percent shooting. "It's just different experiences you have to go through throughout the year. But it's just showing our resilience in not to panic. Last year, and in years past, we'd panic ... take bad shots and lose those games by 10 or 15 points. We're just being patient and executing, defending and making big shots."
Beal said there's a mental toughness that didn't always exist in stages with last season's playoff team.
"We would've been too tight, too tense and would've made a mistake," he said. "We're more mature."
Offensively, Wall's emergence as one of the league's most dominant point guards fueled the team. Coming off his first All-Star season, Wall became the first player in franchise history earlier this week to have five straight games with at least 12 assists. That streak ended Wednesday, when he had 21 points and 11 assists. What would have been his 12th assist was wiped out late in the fourth quarter when a 3-pointer from Beal was waved off because he stepped out of bounds before the shot.
Still, Wall is tied for the league lead with 13 double-doubles, ranks second with 10.4 assists and is third in steals at 2.1. He's the only NBA player averaging at least 18 points, 10 assists and 4 rebounds.
"He's our leader; he's asked to carry a big load," Pierce said of Wall. "He's an All-Star. He's going to do our scoring. He's going to get assists. He's going to be the defender. That's why he's being paid the way he's paid. That's why you see a lot of his jerseys in the stands. He's asked to deliver. That's what he [does]."
The Wizards have supplemented Wall's breakout performance with five other players who are averaging double figures in scoring. Defensively, Washington ranks fifth in the league in opponents' field goal percentage and is eighth in both points allowed and turnovers forced. Orlando was the sixth team the Wizards held below 90 points and they improved to 12-0 this season when opponents fail to reach 100.
"That's us," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "We spend so much time with what we do defensively. Our pace wasn't the greatest offensively. It just makes your defense look a little bit different. There's a way you want a team to try to beat you, and that's how we set up our defense. We stuck with it."
Wittman's formula isn't complicated, especially down the stretch of games.
"Get stops. Execute offensively," he said. "Move bodies, move the ball. We don't worry about who gets the shots. When we play that way, it makes it hard for the other team to say, 'Oh, all we need to do is take so-and-so away and we win the game.'"
Sometimes the roller coaster gets bumpy. The Wizards have had to adjust through injuries that left them without Beal the first month of the season and starting power forward Nene more recently. They've stumbled through blowout losses to Miami, Toronto and Cleveland, but have also beaten the Heat and Cavaliers by double figures. Friday's game against the Clippers opens a stretch in which the Wizards look to improve the league's second-best home record when they play six of their next eight at the Verizon Center before they start a five-game Western Conference swing later this month.
That gives the Wizards a couple of weeks to build on good habits and avoid too many moments when they flirt with disaster late in games. It's a characteristic that might be clutch one week, costly the next.
Miller believes the Wizards have the proper ingredients to steady their erratic stride.
"We have young guys, Brad and John who are proving themselves way early and are getting that respect and are hungry to compete," Miller said. "That rubs off on the rest of the players. You add Paul's leadership and some of the veterans, with our pride to go out there, it helps a lot."
So far, it's showing the potential to be a highly productive recipe.
No Corn Flakes necessary.