Same as he ever was, Miller the key for Trail Blazers in playoffs
Over his 11-season career, Andre Miller has stayed remarkably grounded
He's never been a showy point guard, and he's taken heat for his stoicism
Miller has become the steward of the Brandon Roy-less Blazers this series
PORTLAND, Ore. -- It's seems a little weird to say, but as goes Andre Miller, so go the Blazers. After leaning on Brandon Roy and a deep roster the last few years, it is now Miller -- pass-first point guard, career second lieutenant, enemy of the highlight-compiler -- who will likely determine Portland's fate.
Here he is after practice before Game 3 against Phoenix, the last Blazer on the floor, shooting flat-footed jumpers from various spots around the key, each released with the same stunted push release and all the grace of your dad playing Around the World in the backyard. This compared to Rudy Fernandez, the stylish Spaniard, who finished his practice session (30 minutes earlier, I might add) by shooting half-court shots.
This is classic Miller: practicing boring shots, which in his case are game shots, which also happen to be effective shots.
At 34 years old, Miller may strike you as old school when he plays, but then he's always been old school, even when he should have been new. The first time I met Miller was in 2002, when he was a 26-year-old point guard for the Cavs averaging 16 points and 10 assists per game. His game then wasn't much different than it is today: all angles and straight lines, crafty post moves and decisions made from the ground, not the air. Even back then, he rarely dunked -- though he could and still can (for emphatic proof, check this out). Sure, he had a shoe contract, but it was with Converse to wear -- what else? -- plain white hightops.
Miller made an impression because, especially relative to the distorted world of the pro athlete, he was remarkably grounded. He drove a small, salt-stained GMC Envoy SUV -- the model year of which he couldn't remember -- that had a Tweety-Bird air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. His preferred fashion was sweat pants and an old University of Utah team jacket, and his nickname, "Young Richard," was not exactly the stuff of marketing campaigns. It derived from Miller's uncanny resemblance to a certain bushy-haired '70s comedian, a likeness all his teammates, even Lithuanian-born center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, took great joy in pointing out. "I didn't know who this Richard Pryor was until I saw an HBO comedy," Ilgauskas told me at the time. "But It looks just like him!"
Miller's straight-line personality was in part the product of good parenting. Near the end of Andre's first high school varsity practice, during his sophomore year at Verbum Dei in South Central L.A., his mother marched in and informed the coach that her son had to leave right that second. He needed to mow the lawn, she explained, and without any further delay.
Yes, Andrea Miller intended to see the process through. Once, during Andre's sophomore year at the University of Utah, she took the Greyhound 29 hours each way to see a Midwest Regional NCAA tournament game in Dallas. Less the tennis mom and more the team cheerleader, she endeared herself to the Utes and coach Rick Majerus, who said of her at the time to the San Antonio Express-News, "They ought to make a video of her on how to be a mother."
Considering all this, it shouldn't have surprised fans in Portland (and Denver, and Philadelphia) that Miller isn't a vocal, showy point guard. Some have criticized him for being stoic. Here in Portland, there was concern about his attitude, and how he'd mesh with Roy. And the latter might be a legitimate critique.
Miller is not one to adapt his game -- how he plays is how he plays. Unlike other aging players like Jason Kidd, Miller's never developed a three-point shot. This year, he shot 20 percent. Last season it was 28 percent. (Though, it should be noted, he tends to hit them when it matters, as at the end of Game 1 and during overtime of the January win over Mavs in which he scored 52 points; in each case it was his only three-point attempt of the game). Miller doesn't even shoot well from 16-23 feet, finishing at 34 percent this season, according to Hoopdata.com. But he has shot 59 percent or higher at the rim five years in a row, continues to get to the line and continues to hit his free throws when he does. And there may be no better post-up point guard in the league (Portland center Marcus Camby said even he has trouble with Miller in the post during practice, though his length saves him).
Still, for the Blazers to win this series against Phoenix, they're going to need to adapt, as will Miller, at least to a degree. In Game 1, he killed the Suns by driving and dishing or finishing, consistently beating Jason Richardson while scoring 31 points. Then Game 2 brought the inevitable adjustments, and the Suns geared their defense to stop Miller. Wary of his drives and inside game, Alvin Gentry had the 6-foot-8 Grant Hill pick up Miller full court and shadow him (a ploy that surprised even Miller, who on Wednesday said, "I don't want to throw age into it, me at my age and him at his age, but I didn't think he'd be that aggressive."). When Hill was out of the game, 6-7, 225-pound Jared Dudley bodied Miller. And, on most every pick-and-roll, a second Phoenix player swarmed to double Miller. This left Fernandez to initiate the offense and, clearly, that's not his strength.
So how can Portland counter? After practice on Wednesday, Nate McMillan commended Phoenix on going big against Miller with Roy out -- "They took advantage of the opportunity; it's the right move by them," he said -- while also lamenting his own team's ineffectiveness. "We still should have been able to do something. We have sets we can run to take advantage of that, we just didn't get to them."
Translation: Expect to see Miller more aggressive coming to the ball -- he met alone with McMillan for 10 minutes in his office on Wednesday -- better screens and, perhaps, a more energized Fernandez, who, despite being covered by the 6-3 Steve Nash, rarely looked for his shot.
But don't expect to see a different Miller, for there are few more static players or personalities in the league. After all, his hair is a little patchier, and there's a speck of gray in the goatee, but he looks much the same as he did when he came into the league. He still gets called "Young Richard" -- "mostly by old teammates, like the guys from the Clippers, and sometimes from fans," he said. Sure, he has upgraded from that Envoy -- "Man, that was a good truck," he said wistfully -- but the Range Rover he now owns is the only car he drives.
He is a simple man playing a complicated game. And also, at least for the time being, the steward of these Portland Trail Blazers.
Chris Ballard is the author of The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Guide to the NBA.
NBA Truth & Rumors