CHICAGO – Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld didn’t pick up Andre Miller at the trade deadline simply to get into the playoffs; he knew that having a point guard savant would be especially important when the team actually started playing postseason games because of Miller’s wealth of experience.
But Miller has one glaring blemish on his 15-year NBA resume – his previous nine playoff teams all got bounced in the first round.The Wizards appeared headed toward a one-game-to-none deficit to the Chicago Bulls in the third quarter, when they trailed by 13. The hole had been reduced to five by the time Miller replaced John Wall with about 14 minutes in the game.
And by the time Wall returned about 10 minutes later, the game was tied and the table was set for Washington to claim its first Game 1 victory in a playoff series since 1986 – when Miller was 10. The Wizards closed out the Bulls with a 102-93 victory, but certainly wouldn’t have been in that position without Miller and Nene teaming up to show the resolve needed to win in late April.
“It’s big, but it’s only one game,” said Miller, who knows not to get excited after winning the series opener in five other series and losing. Last season, Miller scored a playoff-career-high 28 points and had the game-winner in Game 1 for the Denver Nuggets, who got upset by Golden State.
“That’s an experienced team over there, they might make some adjustments and they’re just going to come out and play harder. We just want to stay steady, go to the drawing board, look at some of the mistakes we made. Hopefully, we can come out and get the second game.”
The Bulls kept Wall mostly in check in his playoff debut, limiting him to 16 points on 4 of 14 shooting and disrupting his patented, leaper corner passes. “It’s very intense,” Wall said, describing the atmosphere with playoff basketball. “I watched it and went to a couple of games, but it’s a lot different when you’re on the court. It was one segment I couldn’t really breathe when I was going up and down the court.”
The 38-year-old Miller had a forgettable showing when he first offered relief duties for Wall. He picked up a cheap foul, threw a bad pass to Bulls guard Jimmy Butler and struggled to keep up with Bulls reserve D.J. Augustin.
But when Miller returned for his second stint late in the third, he quickly brought the Wizards within 75-72. Then, after the Wizards missed seven straight straight shots, Miller put Washington on his back by driving for a layup and taking a pass from Nene for another. Wall said he was about to sub for Miller at around the seven minute mark, but grabbed a seat and waited a while longer after Miller hit a jumper.
“Just to try to be a little more aggressive and make plays,” Miller said, when asked how he approached his second-half stint. “Nene made some great passes by me cutting and just some good shots, some key rebounds and some great defensive stops collectively for this team. I know [Nene’s] a great passer, they doubled him a little bit earlier and then they started to play him straight up off the block and we just made cuts and he made solid passes.”
Nene later ripped the ball from Joakim Noah, dribbled up the floor and made a reverse layup.
With the long-time Nuggets teammates working an effective two-man game, Miller scored eight points in the fourth quarter, diving to the basket to catch a back-door pass from Nene again to bring the Wizards within 85-84. Nene recorded all three of his assists in the period, including another to Marcin Gortat.
“I think Dre was really impressive. He definitely get us going,” Gortat said after scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the win. “Nene was finding people open and the most important thing for us was being in the right place.”
Miller’s greatest benefit to the Wizards since arriving in that Feb. 20 trade with Denver has been with excellent passing, the NBA’s ninth all-time assist man didn’t have any helpers against Chicago. But his unexpected yet timely scoring outburst was enough to help the Wizards snap a seven-game losing streak in Game 1s.
“He struggled a little in the first half,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Miller, “but having coached him before and having him back for his 15th year, I know what he is capable of and I know he is going to try to do the right thing. That segment that he had was very instrumental. It was kind of calming us a little bit. He controlled offensively, the tempo for us. He is pretty crafty still at this age to get to the basket.”