SAN ANTONIO — The assumption is Mike Miller will be an amnesty victim this summer. But just maybe the Miami Heat will decide once again to do what they essentially did following last year’s NBA Finals.
Place Miller in storage. Then unpack him for the next Finals.
One of the most vivid images of the 2012 Finals was Miller looking like the Kirk Gibson of basketball. Barely able to walk, the 6-foot-8 swingman still hit 7 of 8 3-pointers in a Game 5 win over Oklahoma City that clinched the title.
Miller then got healthy during the offseason, losing weight, receiving acupuncture, practicing yoga and anything else he could think of to fix his ailing back. He says he now feels the best he has in five years.
Still, that didn’t translate into much playing time during the regular season and for the bulk of this postseason. But the Finals have arrived, and once again Miller has been dusted off.
“He’s our hidden gem,” said Heat guard Mario Chalmers.
In the first two Finals games against the San Antonio Spurs, Miller shot 5 of 6, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range. With the series tied 1-1, Game 3 is Tuesday night at the AT&T Center.
During the regular season, Miller sat out 23 games and averaged 4.8 points and 15.3 minutes in the 59 he did play. This postseason started with Miller missing six of Miami’s first 14 games and only logging more than six minutes in one of the eight others.
But with some Miami 3-point shooters having their troubles, namely forward Shane Battier, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra figured it eventually would be time to unwrap Miller. The opportunity came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at Indiana, which the Heat trailed by 17 points in the third quarter.
After being inserted for the fourth quarter, Miller drilled two 3-pointers and the Heat cut the deficit to four. They lost 91-77, but Miller had earned a spot back in the rotation.
“Starting in the Chicago series, he was in the forefront of my mind,” Spoelstra said of a 4-1 East semifinal win in which Miller played just 19 total minutes. “You get to the playoffs, you can’t force it. I wanted to and I felt like he could really help. It just didn’t necessarily need to transpire in the Chicago series. And by the end of the Indiana series, there was a need for him. So he’s been very mature and patient about it and our guys have embraced the sacrifice.”
With Battier shooting 15 of 67 (22.4 percent) from 3-point range in the playoffs, Miller has taken many of his minutes lately. In Miami’s 103-84 win over the Spurs in Game 2, Miller shot 3 of 3 from long range for nine points in 15 minutes.
“It’s always difficult when you’re not playing, but look at who I’m playing behind,” Miller, 33, said of his inactivity much of the season. “It makes it a little easier. (Spoelstra said) basically everybody stay involved and your number will be called and you just got to be ready. … It’s tough when you’re not used to playing at that high level of basketball for a while, but you stay ready and stay focused.”
Miller has a unique ability to get hot immediately even if he hasn’t played for awhile. His huge Game 5 against the Thunder came after after he had averaged just 3.7 minutes in the three prior games.
“I don’t want to see me running like that again,” Miller cracked when asked if he’s gone back much to watch footage from that night when he scored 23 points.
Miller is much healthier now. He said he’s dropped eight pounds to get down to 210, which has taken some strain off his back and knees.
“I’ve went and reworked my body and I’m as healthy as I’ve felt in five years,” said the former University of Florida star.
Heat star LeBron James has been a big supporter of Miller’s. James has dropped hints at times about how Miller should be playing more
“As teammates, we want him on the floor,” James said after Game 2. “We know what he brings. He’s a (6-8) two guard/small forward that can shoot the ball from anywhere and can rebound at a high clip.”
After Tuesday morning’s shootaround, James walked by when Miller was giving an interview and said with a laugh, “Darn, Mike Miller, you’re doing interviews now.”
Several feet away, Battier also was giving an interview. Battier, who earlier this week finished second behind Chauncey Billups in voting for the inaugural Twyman-Stokes Award, said it’s been difficult having his minutes cut but that he feels good for Miller.
“I’m happy for Mike,” Battier said. “He’s been a true pro. It’s been a tough year for him, but he’s seized his opportunity, which is all you can do.”
Eventually, it will be seen what opportunities Miller has after these Finals with Miami. With 2013-14 being the first season of the NBA’s more punitive luxury tax, the general belief is the Heat will let him go via the amnesty rule. They would then owe Miller the $12.8 million left on the final two years of his contract but wouldn’t have to pay a tax on it.
Even Miller believes the Heat could amnesty him. But what if Miller comes up big again in another Finals victory? Might team officials at least think about putting him back in dry dock with the thinking he could be rolled out for the 2014 Finals?
“That’s probably what they’ll do,” Chalmer quipped. “It’s been working these two years so why stop?”
There’s still plenty to be decided in these Finals. But Miami’s hidden gem so far has been up to the task.