Splayed out on his back next to the Heat’s bench, Mike Miller leaned laboriously on one elbow when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra signaled for him to reenter Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The expression on Miller’s face — fresh, able — belied the pain.
Mario Chalmers had just picked up his fifth foul with more than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, and Miller was needed one last time.
He was ready, but there was one problem: Miller was having a hard time getting up.
With the help of a few teammates, Miller lifted himself slowly off the court and hobbled gingerly to the scorer’s table. It was the gait of an old man, hunched over, testing his back, relearning its weaknesses.
Miller checked into the game and provided a stopgap defensive effort for four crucial minutes. He entered the game with his team leading by eight points, and when Chalmers slapped his hand and checked back in with 3:27 to play, the Heat still led by the same margin. Finally, Miller’s night was done.
Dwyane Wade was magical Thursday in the Heat’s 105-93 victory against the Pacers in Indianapolis, and LeBron James gave another masterful performance. But it was Miller’s heart and determination that defined Miami in its close-out game of the second-round series. Shorthanded with the losses of Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, Miller provided 22 minutes and made four important three-pointers for 12 points. Entering the game, he only had 10 points in the entire series.
With Haslem, the Heat’s inspirational co-captain, suspended and watching the game in a hotel room, Miller provided a little of his own gritty determination in a difficult road playoff game against an opponent fighting desperately to remain alive.
“It was a collective effort by everyone [Thursday night],” Miller said. “We definitely miss [Haslem], and we can’t wait to have him back.”
Miller and Haslem have been friends since college and, on the surface, they’re an odd pair. Haslem is from Liberty City. Miller is from Mitchell, South Dakota. Peel back the unimportant exteriors, however, and you couldn’t find two more similar people — understated, family first, always willing to sacrifice.
After Game 6, Wade called Miller perhaps the toughest player on the Heat’s team. That’s normally a description reserved exclusively for Haslem.
“You just do what you got to do,” said Miller when asked about fighting through the pain.
Miller’s back isn’t the only thing hurting him right now. There are other injuries that will be addressed after the playoffs. He was in so much pain during Games 5 and 6 that he chose to lie down next to the Heat’s bench rather than sit in a chair.
Still, Miller’s textbook-perfect shot held true for a key three-pointer with 32 seconds left in the third quarter of Game 6. It gave the Heat a seven-point lead. On the Heat’s next possession, Chalmers stroked a three-pointer at the buzzer to put Miami up 10.
“It’s all about opportunity,” Miller said. “The first couple of games, they weren’t giving me very good looks. [Thursday], I got some open looks, knocked them down and actually missed a few I should have made, I felt.”
The NBA fined Spoelstra $25,000 on Friday, a day after he said referees hadn’t done enough to protect Wade and James from hard fouls in the playoffs. Spoelstra’s fine, handed down by Stu Jackson, the NBA’s vice president for basketball operations, was the final reverberation of a cantankerous second-round series between the Heat and Pacers.
Before the series even began, Pacers coach Frank Vogel was fined $15,000 for calling the Heat’s defenders floppers.
The Heat did not practice Friday, and Spoelstra was unavailable for comment.