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BILL DWYRE

Underestimate the Nuggets' Andre Miller at your peril

The Denver point guard, a Verbum Dei High product, is one of the NBA's quiet masters — though as he tormented the Lakers on Tuesday you saw a bit of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

May 09, 2012|Bill Dwyre

So, Lakers fans, if you are still in shock over what Andre Miller did to your team at Staples Center on Tuesday night and want to know more about him, pull up a chair.

Miller seems to fit most fans' image of a journeyman. He is 36, has played for five teams — twice with the Denver Nuggets — and is not generally coveted by NBA fantasy league players.

Tuesday night, when the Nuggets beat the Lakers and sent the playoff series back to Denver for Game 6 on Thursday night — a stunning result for Lakers fans — you saw a bit of Michael Jordan, a pinch of Chris Paul and a smidgen of Magic Johnson all in one point guard. You won't always see that in Miller, because you won't always see him totally unleashed, as he was by George Karl that night against the Lakers.

In the NBA, there are superstars and quiet masters. Miller is the latter. He doesn't self-promote. He's not a great quote. He doesn't tweet controversial stuff or change his name to Andre World Peace. He just plays, all out, every night, as much as they let him and need him to, in whatever uniform he happens to be wearing.

He is from Los Angeles and Verbum Dei High. Two of his most dramatic moments took place right here in Southern California, 14 years apart.

The second time was Tuesday night, when he scored 24 points, had eight assists — including some of the more spectacular alley-oop passes you will ever see — and willed his Nuggets to a win that dragged the more famous, more talented Lakers back to Denver.

The first time was in a 1998 NCAA regional final at what was then the Pond of Anaheim.

Miller was a lightly recruited point guard who had become a star at the University of Utah. That's a little like being the prettiest girl in Siberia.

The Runnin' Utes, coached by a round man in a white sweater named Rick Majerus, played Pac-10 powerhouse Arizona in the regional final. The expectation was that Arizona would win because, well, it was playing Utah. But Utah played a rare triangle-and-two defense, which allowed the Utes to concentrate their man-on-man coverage on Arizona's high-scoring guards, Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, while the other three Utah players stayed in a zone.

Bibby, Simon and Coach Lute Olson looked confused throughout, and Miller went on a rampage, getting 18 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. It was only the fourth triple-double to that time in NCAA tournament history, and Utah's 76-51 romp put it in the Final Four in San Antonio.

Flash-forward a week to the Saturday of the Final Four.

Majerus puts his team through a walk-through just hours before game time. Each of the four teams gets about half an hour in the Alamodome. The Runnin' Utes pass around rolled-up sweat socks instead of basketballs. It is more acclimating than practicing.

When Utah's time is about to run out, Majerus calls his players together and gives them the game plan. He says the Runnin' Utes will be exactly that against North Carolina. He tells a team that has been taught to make about six passes before it even thinks about shooting, that lives and dies with precise patterns and high-percentage shots, to get the ball off the boards, get it out and go.

The implication is that they are faster than North Carolina, which they know they are not. Surrounding Miller is a collection of big, tall guys that includes Hanno Mottola, Drew Hansen, Alex Jensen and Michael Doleac. None are Olympic sprinters. They look at Majerus as if he's finally lost it, but they say nothing. He is, after all, the architect of the destruction of Miles Simon and Mike Bibby.

Majerus tells them that they will know if this is working as soon as Bill Guthridge, North Carolina's coach, calls a timeout and goes to a zone. What he doesn't tell them is he knows full well they are not anywhere near as fast as North Carolina — but Miller is.

About halfway through the first half, Guthridge calls a timeout and goes to a zone. Miller has taken outlet pass after outlet pass and gone one-on-five. Utah beats North Carolina and then runs out of gas against Kentucky in the final.

In 1999, Miller is drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the eighth pick in the first round, and begins his fine NBA career. He even has one season with the Clippers, in 2002-03. But in then-typical Clippers fashion, it doesn't work out. He doesn't like them and they don't like that he doesn't like them, so he moves on.

In his 13 seasons in the NBA, he has averaged 14.1 points and 7.2 assists. He has also missed a total of eight regular-season games in that span.

Before Tuesday night's game, he made what was termed by his teammates a "fiery speech."

Arron Afflalo said Wednesday morning, "His play on the court spoke even higher than that."

On the broadcast Tuesday night, TNT ran a clip of Karl ranking Miller "in the top 10 all-time of NBA point guards." The broadcast team of Marv Albert and Steve Kerr, who have each seen thousands of games, fudged that to the top 15.

Right now, Lakers fans are more worried about how Miller ranks Thursday night, and maybe even Saturday back at Staples.

For once, the prettiest girl in Siberia is getting noticed.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed reporting to this column.

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