MIAMI -- Down the hall, his Miami Heat teammates are swigging champagne. Chris Bosh is singing to the music in the locker room. Dwyane Wade is cradling that famous gold trophy given only to an NBA champion.
Mike Miller is not swigging, not singing, not cradling. He's grimacing. This is away from the cameras, away from fans and media. This is not a public moment but a private one, behind a curtain in a waiting area just outside the room where he will meet the media after his incredible game, a 23-point masterpiece -- he was 7 of 8 on 3-pointers -- that helped the Heat beat the Thunder 121-106 Thursday night to finish off the 2012 NBA Finals in five games.
Miller is waiting for Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to finish talking to the media, waiting in that room behind the curtain, grimacing because it just hurts so damn much. What hurts? Pretty much all of it. Shoulder, ankle. Back. Stomach. You name it, it hurts. Miller has had three surgeries in the last 12 months -- on his thumb, his shoulder, his back -- and probably needs another couple in the next few weeks. He's a mess. His body is broken.
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Miller tries to stand, but it's not working. His legs are straight, but he tilts forward at the waist, as if a doorway is coming and he's about to duck. Only, there's no doorway. He just can't stand straight. So he gives that up and hunches over, his hands near his knees, holding onto his shorts so he doesn't keel over. Soon he gives that up, too. Now Miller is crouching like a catcher, head down, hands on his eyes.
Again, this is a private moment. This is not for show. I'm peeking because I'm nosy, and now I'm concerned. I walk up to Miller, who has a security guard at his side, and before the guard can shoo me away I ask Miller, "Are you OK?"
Miller looks up, smiles wearily, and lies.
"I'm good," he says. "I'm good."
I tell him, not abrasively but gently, "You wouldn't tell me if you weren't."
He smiles. Nods. "Maybe I'm a little sore," he says.
Now the security guard is shooing me away, and here comes Durant and Westbrook off the podium, into the curtained room, toward Miller. They give him a hug, then slide off and hug Wade, who has appeared. He's still holding that gold trophy, and he's heading to the interview room, only he sees the logjam. He sees Miller waiting, and Miller invites Wade to join him on the podium. Wade shakes his head. Wade has been going to the podium all playoffs, after almost every game. This is nothing special to him, more obligation than opportunity, but for Miller? This is Miller's chance in the spotlight, and Wade wants him to have it all to himself. Wade will wait.
"Oh no," Wade says when Miller invites him to share the podium. "No, Mike Miller. Mike Miller? All yours."
Now Miller is walking toward the podium, if you can call it walking. I call it limping, lurching. If he wasn't 6-foot-8 and dressed like an NBA player, you'd never know. You'd think he was a fan, and not a fan of 32, which is Miller's age. From behind, the way he moves, Miller could be 80. He's creaky, and he's "the toughest guy I've ever seen," says Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, but Miller doesn't think he's anything special.
Behind the podium now, Miller says, "Everyone's dealing with something." Then he cracks a joke.
"I'm just thankful they didn't take me behind the barn," he says, "and put me down."
Miller might do it to himself -- to his NBA career, anyway -- and he might do it soon. He says he will meet with doctors, "see what parts work and don't," and then talk it over with his wife, his coach, his owner, and with team president Pat Riley. Miller has three years left on the five-year, $25 million contract he signed in 2010, but he doesn't want to steal anyone's money. He wants to be fair to everyone, starting with his family but also including his teammates. He doesn't want to be a burden on them, take up a roster spot next season if he can't contribute.
This would be a hell of a way to go out, Miller knows. I told him as much, said I wasn't trying to chase him out of the NBA but, man, what a way to go. He smiled wearily again, nodded, said it was a very real option.
"If it is [the end], I couldn't paint a better picture to go out on top like this as a champion," he said.
This was surrealism, something by Salvador Dali, something that makes no sense but is beautiful nonetheless. Because it made no sense that Mike Miller would score 23 points on this night, given that he had scored 24 points in the last nine games combined. In the first four games of the NBA Finals, Miller had eight points. He had zero 3-pointers.
Thursday night, he had 23 points? On seven 3-pointers? One off the NBA Finals record of eight set in 2010 by Ray Allen? Surreal.
"I don't know how this guy was playing," Spoelstra said. "I literally only planned on playing him three or four minutes tonight. That's all I thought he could go. Dwyane got in foul trouble, then [Miller] started knocking down 3's. It was pure adrenaline and competitive will."
Exquisite timing, too. Heat owner Micky Arison told Miller afterward, "You have the greatest timing in the world," and Arison's right. Miller's previous season high was 18 points, that coming in his first game of the season on even better shooting -- 6 of 6 on 3-pointers. This is a guy who knows how to make an entrance, right? He knows how to make an exit, too, if this is how his career ends.
And lots of me wants his career to end like this, at the pinnacle individually and as a team. Mike Miller deserves that. This is one of the league's really good guys, with a pediatric intensive care unit named after him and his wife in Mitchell, S.D., where they gave $1 million to the children's hospital. That was 2007.
Four years later, the Millers would need help in return.
Their daughter was born during the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, and she was not born healthy. She had four holes in her heart, and she didn't come home for 10 days, and meanwhile the Heat were playing the Bulls in the conference finals and Miller was going from the hospital to the arena, then back to the hospital. He slept on a chair in his daughter's room. He played games wearing his hospital bracelet.
He brought his daughter home before the NBA Finals, and today Jaelyn is a healthy 1-year old. That story has had a happy ending. If this is it for his NBA career, it will have a happy ending, too. Endings don't get better than this, a 12-year-veteran playing his best game of the year in the biggest game of his career, then limping off into the sunset.
But Miller isn't ready to make a retirement speech. Not yet, anyway.
"It's not anything to write about or read about," he said. "I'm going to enjoy this right now, and we'll address that when the time comes."
With that, Miller's time at the podium was done. So was Miller. Walk back to his locker room, like Westbrook and Durant walked back to theirs moments earlier? Not going to happen. A security guard led Miller to a golf cart, where he climbed onto the back. The last time I saw him, as he disappeared around a corner, Mike Miller was extending a hand toward a soda vendor at American Airlines Arena, touching knuckles, both of them smiling.