Miller: Toughness Key to Continued Success

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

In a way, it’s almost as though Mike Miller went abroad on a special internship. I mean, really, that’s how big the gap is from playing for the Grizzlies in small-market Memphis to going to South Beach to play a defined role on a Heat team that would win two NBA championships behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Not only did Miller hit some big shots in the NBA Finals last spring – he’s still got that 3-point stroke and it is fun to imagine the game-changer he might be for the Grizzlies – but he also has spent time under the group microscope.

“That’s one thing I can help with,” Miller said. “We have some expectations here, which is a good thing.”

Of course, it was a good thing in Miami, too. You know, except when it was a suffocating thing. The situations are not the same, obviously. There’s no LeBron or D-Wade in Memphis (present company excluded) and the expectations are set at different levels.

The Heat had to win the NBA championship. And then win it again. Grizzlies fans would be beyond ecstatic for the team to reach the NBA Finals and pretty happy with a return to the Western Conference Finals depending on how everything breaks, accounting for injuries, etc.

Still, expectations have a way of laying heavy weight on players’ shoulders. That’s not a good thing.

There’s also the danger of assumption – that by going deep in the playoffs last season the Grizzlies already have their ticket punched to the playoffs and through the first round.

“The one thing people gotta understand is that just because we were in the Western Conference Finals last year does not guarantee anything this year,” Miller said. “The Western Conference has gotten way better.

“So we’ve got to be able to manage those expectations. There will be ups and downs. The one thing I learned in Miami when we lost a game was, ‘what the hell’s wrong with Miami? They’re not playing very well.’ It’s a long process. Same thing here. When we lose a couple of games, we just gotta know in that locker room that we work on things and get better.

“It’s the whole roller coaster,” Miller said. “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”

I don’t have any metrics to support this next statement, but in the Lionel Hollins years I came to notice something in his pre-game scrums with the media. When the team was on a roll, he sometimes would, almost arbitrarily, be terser and go out of his way to knock down storylines heaping praise on individual players or the team.

Conversely, when the Grizzlies were scuffling, he treated questions about their struggles as over-analysis by people who had never played or coached the game at a high level. His default was that all that mattered was coming out that night and playing harder and better than the other guys.

That was Hollins’ way of navigating the roller coast. First-year coach Dave Joerger will have to find his way to manage the ups and downs and we don’t yet know if it will be as effective, more effective or less effective.

But one thing that has been crucial in recent seasons must remain in place now: the effort and the selflessness that has defined Grit-n-Grind and allowed the Grizzlies’ sum to be greater than the team’s individual parts. Joerger’s hope, of course, is that his up-tempo offense will create more space for center Marc Gasol and forward Zach Randolph while also giving point guard Mike Conley and others more room to operate.

The Expectation with a capital E, then, is that the Grizzlies remain one of the league’s elite defensive teams while becoming a vastly improved offensive team. Miller says Heat players viewed the Grizzlies as a blend between a typical Western Conference team and Eastern Conference team.

“They reminded us of playing against the Bulls or Pacers in the fact that you knew you played the Grizzlies when you left the game,” Miller said, adding what matters most now: “That’s the toughness we’ve got to keep because that’s the heart and soul of this team.”

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.