Miller: 'Hopefully things will turn around' in '09

MINNEAPOLIS -- When NBA veteran Mike Miller was sent from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Minnesota Timberwolves on a draft-night trade in June, the Mitchell native said he was excited for the chance to play close to home.

Matt Bunke/Republic Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Miller drives around Golden State Warriors guard Anthony Morrow during the second half of Friday's NBA basketball game in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS -- When NBA veteran Mike Miller was sent from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Minnesota Timberwolves on a draft-night trade in June, the Mitchell native said he was excited for the chance to play close to home.

Miller, a nine-year NBA veteran, knew at the time he would be looked to for leadership on a young team whose future looked brightest a few years down the road. He probably never envisioned his first two months in a Timberwolves uniform being quite like this.

The Wolves have suffered through a rough 8-25 start while Miller has battled a nagging ankle injury. He sat helplessly on the side in nine of his team's first 31 games as Minnesota at one point lost 13 straight.

"Losing is always frustrating," Miller said before Friday's game against Golden State at the Target Center. "Plus, the nagging injury -- the same ankle twice in a row now -- it's frustrating. But at the same time, you have to go out there and play the game."

Given the Timberwolves' early-season futility, it might have seemed overly optimistic to some Timberwolves fans when Miller told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week that "you have to understand it's a long season." After all, the Timberwolves were 6-25 at the time and coming off a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in which they blew a 29-point third-quarter lead.


Turns out Miller may have been right.

Friday against Golden State, Miller returned to the lineup after missing the last five games with a right ankle sprain and helped the Wolves to a 115-108 win over Golden State. Miller, who missed four games earlier in December with an injury to the same ankle, also played Saturday night in Chicago in another Wolves' win. It was the Wolves' first back-to-back wins of the season.

While things are looking up for Minnesota, 8-25 is far from where Miller and the Wolves hoped they would be nearly midway through the season. However, Minnesota has now won four of its last six games, and would be on a four-game winning streak if it weren't for the late collapse in Dallas.

"That's the way we have to look at it," Miller said. "We're looking at the fact that it's a long season and we're going to have a lot of opportunities to make this a good season. It's going to happen sooner rather than later."

The team's early-season struggles have been especially frustrating for Miller, who probably hoped to leave those losing ways behind when he left Memphis.

After bursting on the scene as a freshman at Mitchell High School, losing wasn't a common occurrence for Miller. Mitchell won state titles his sophomore and junior seasons and made it to the state tournament all four years. After graduating in 1998, he played two years at the University of Florida and as a sophomore, helped the Gators to a second-place finish in the 2000 NCAA tournament.

He declared for the NBA draft after that sophomore season and was chosen with the fifth overall pick by the Orlando Magic.

Miller, who made the playoffs twice with Orlando and three times with the Grizzlies in his first six years in the league, hasn't had the same luck lately.


The Grizzlies missed the playoffs the last three years, and suffered consecutive 22-60 seasons in Miller's last two years in Memphis. Combined with Minnesota's 8-25 start this year, Miller's teams are 52-145 in the last two-plus years.

"There's definitely frustration," Miller said. "There's only one way you can deal with it, and that's go out there, do your job every day, put in as much work as possible and hopefully things will turn around."

Minnesota's recent back-to-back wins could be a sign that things are looking up. Six of the Timberwolves' next 10 games are against teams with a losing record, and, if Miller's ankle stays healthy, the Wolves will have another veteran leader and a double-digit scorer back in the mix.

Timberwolves head coach Kevin McHale was excited about Miller's return, saying after Friday's game that just his presence on the court gave the Wolves a lift against Golden State. McHale also said he hoped Miller -- who is averaging 10.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game -- would be an even bigger part of Minnesota's offense as the season progresses.

"His two threes were wide open," McHale said of Miller's two missed 3-pointers Friday. "If we can get Mike 10 of those a game, I'd be happy. ...Our biggest challenge is going to be getting enough ball movement, enough driving, enough spacing, so Mike can spot and shoot."

Despite playing relatively close to his hometown this season, Miller, who has one year left on his current contract, said being traded to the Timberwolves after six years in Memphis caused a number of challenges.

"It's definitely tough," Miller said. "When you've been somewhere for six years, it makes it more difficult because you've built a lot of relationships. At the same time, trades are always difficult, so you make the most of them."

Making the most of the trade means the chance to play for the team he followed while growing up. It also allows him to play in front of family and friends more often. Miller said his family has frequently been able to make the trip to Minneapolis to see him play, and while out with the ankle injury, he even made it home for Christmas.


He also got to play Friday in front of more than 600 fans from Mitchell, who made the trip to Minneapolis to watch Mitchell High's game against Brandon Valley, as well as Minnesota's game against Golden State. Miller returned to the court afterward for a question and answer session with those fans, and it's that type of opportunity Miller said he cherishes most now that he plays in the Twin Cities.

"It's always fun to be close to home," he said Friday, as Mitchell fans and friends milled about the Target Center. "On days like this, when I get an opportunity to do stuff like this, it's fun."

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