MIAMI — By this point, Mike Miller had already hugged just about everyone in hugging distance, from equipment managers to long-time ushers to courtside fans. Now, after he got his ring, a brief embrace and a pat on the back from his former coach, Miller was going to get what was coming to him.
Dwyane Wade would make sure of that.
Wade gave Miller a no-look tug, yanking him into a scrum, with Miller surprising LeBron James with the force of his forward fall. From there, all of his former temamates patted him, bumped him and bounced into him until Miller finally escaped with the help of a playful push from James.
It was so strange to see this sight Friday, and not because it came before the Heat—losers of six of nine coming in—had to play an important contest against the Memphis team that Miller now represents. Rather, it was strange because sights like these have been so seldom this season.
This was the happiest the Heat had looked in weeks.
"It was one of those things where we wish we didn't have a game," Wade said. "We haven't seen Mike in a long time. It was good to see him."
And for Heat fans, it had to be good to see that—that fun, that freedom, that frivolity. That's been missing for Miami, and not just because Miller—with his infectious attitude—has parted ways with the team, sacrificed in the offseason to save sizable luxury tax payments.
This regular season hasn't been something the Heat have enjoyed, but something they have endured.
That's still the case, even after Miami's unlikely 91-86 win against Miller's Grizzlies, one aided by Marc Gasol's ankle injury, two questionable no-calls as Heat defenders tried to corral the rampaging Zach Randolph, and a missed Miller three-point attempt with 1:04 remaining.
"It was one of those grind-it-out, playoff-type games," James said.
In that sense, it was encouraging that the victory came against the team known for grit-and-grind, on a night that James, Wade and Chris Bosh were uncommonly ordinary, combining for 40 points on 16-of-40 shooting, and for nearly as many turnovers (10) as assists (11). Others needed to contribute, and others did, with Ray Allen scoring 18 off the bench, and Mario Chalmers outplaying Mike Conley.
And Wade did make some key plays late, including an inbounds dart to Allen for a dunk ("I was a backup quarterback," he quipped), a few possessions after a steal and an in-traffic putback that tied the game at 84.
"I was either coming up with that ball or coming up with blood," Wade said. "It was one or the other."
That sounds like an appropriate description of a season in which the Heat have been cut, bruised and scarred. There haven't been, and won't be, any 27-game winning streaks. There hasn't been much continuity or cohesion. There hasn't been as many laughers, or as much laughter.
James has tried to keep everyone engaged and enthusiastic—leading the Halloween costume party in New York, hosting teammates for a Thanksgiving feast, organizing Secret Santa, passing out championship wrestling belts.
But the season has delivered one blow after another—deflating losses to diminished, but somehow energized, opponents.
"This is the toughest season we've had since year one, because of everything that comes with trying to repeat," James said. "We are the target every single night. We have to find our own motivation every single night."
Joy? That's been even harder to come by.
James' 61-point game? It was apparent that night. Bosh's game-winner in Portland? That night, too.
But otherwise, it's been more of a drag, mentally and emotionally fatiguing, and not especially rewarding.
"Yeah, a little bit," Chalmers said. "Got new faces on the team this year, people with different roles, battling injuries. So it's been tough for us to really get in a rhythm. It's just something we're going to keep working on. We're gonna keep fighting."
And Chalmers made a promise:
"At the end, we're gonna have fun. That's what we do. Once we get back to clicking like that, the rest is history."
So is the Mike Miller era in Miami.
That wasn't all fun, either; he was frustrated by his endless spate of injuries, and by his erratic allotment of playing time. But no one remembered any of that Friday. Everyone remembered the good times: the pre-game rituals, the hearty laughs, the shoeless threes, the championship parades.
Miller spoke to South Florida media outlets in advance of the game, but not afterwards. As was his custom when he played for the Heat, he slipped out of the locker room without anyone seeing him, this time not to drive back to Pompano Beach, but to fly back to Memphis.
He left the Heat to their joyless regular season—the one they'll be happy to see end.
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