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The curious case of Mike Miller


It is a simple sketch, really, a line drawing of a basketball with a shooter's creed angled across it the way sailors often went with "Mom'' back in tattoos' drunk and tawdry days. In this case, the words are "Let it Fly'' and the design is unobtrusively high on Mike Miller's back, between the shoulder blades, just south of his neck.

Which, come to think of it, might be the problem. Just as with real estate, the key to body art is location, location, location. Miller and his team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, might be better served if this particular one was smack dab in the middle of his forehead. Oh, and in reverse, the way ECNALUBMA gets painted on the front of an emergency vehicle. That way, the veteran swingman could read it every morning, a reminder each time he looked in the mirror: YLF TI TEL.

Maybe then, he would practice what the ink under his skin preaches.

This is the curious case of Mike Miller, a bona fide NBA sharpshooter who wants to do anything but shoot, as determinedly and as inexplicably as Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button aging from old to young. His play this season has been nothing short of confounding to Minnesota fans and league faithful, a one-man wrecking crew doing a 180 on an NBA cliché. Miller has been the antithesis of the claim that every player in the league would gladly jack up more shots if he could, that his life would be an endless loop of "Yes!'' if not for some coach constantly tell him "No.''

It is hurting his team, as much as any single failing can hurt an 18-42 team. And it is as unusual a man-bites-dog NBA story as exists right now.

You could argue that, when the 2008-09 season began, only Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and a few other stars had greener lights to shoot the ball than Miller. The Wolves acquired him on draft night last June, swapping the rights to O.J. Mayo for Miller and rookie Kevin Love, in the belief that the shooter's demonstrated range and frequency would make their offense more efficient. Miller would pull defenders out of the paint, where they too often sagged to help against low-post load Al Jefferson. That also would open lanes to the rim for Randy Foye's dribble-drives or some other teammate cutting through. Meanwhile, Miller would be putting up points at something approximating his 40 percent career rate of three-point success or his 50.2 field-goal percentage overall in 2007-08.

Projection vs. reality? Miller is shooting 49.5 percent overall. He's at 36.5 percent from beyond the arc, but he'd be right around 40 percent if a half dozen of his misses were makes. And yet, he is averaging a career-low 9.9 points because he routinely, oddly, passes up shots. Game after game after game.

The guy Wolves coach Kevin McHale has described as a "world-class shooter'' ranks sixth on the team in field-goal attempts and 10th in terms of shot frequency. That is, on a per-minute basis, Miller's one hoist every 4.27 minutes he's on the floor is lower not only than acknowledged scorers Jefferson (1.88) and Foye (2.50) but also Ryan Gomes (2.89), Rodney Carney (2.94), Craig Smith (3.07), Sebastian Telfair (3.17), Love (3.24) and injured Corey Brewer (3.41). Even newcomer Bobby Brown (2.06), an undrafted fringe guy acquired from Sacramento, is out-launching Miller since arriving at the trade deadline.

Worse, Miller isn't playing like the Upper Midwest product (Mitchell, S.D.) the Wolves coveted during his years in Orlando and Memphis. Over his first eight NBA seasons, when his scoring ability earned him the Rookie of the Year award in 2001 and the Sixth Man trophy in 2006, Miller shot the ball 6,482 times in 18,229 minutes, an average of once per 2.81 minutes. Now he's at 4.27, representing a 50 percent decline in his scoring attempts. What gives?

"We get in trouble when we don't move the ball,'' Miller said, offering what has become his boilerplate answer on the topic. "My job on this team is sometimes to pull up and sometimes to move the ball. We don't play well when we don't move the ball. If we just play on one side of the floor and take two, three dribbles and shoot, we're in a lot of trouble.''

As an explanation, it wasn't very helpful. No more than his response back in January when he said: "I take what's there. It's called basketball; James Naismith invented it a long time ago.''

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Last we looked, even the good Canadian doctor kept track of points scored. Miller has led Minnesota in that category once all season. He had a midseason stretch in which he reached double figures in points in just one of 14 games. Miller attempted 10 or more shots just nine times through January. Then, after doing that five times in seven games immediately after Jefferson's season-ending knee injury on Feb. 8 (when Minnesota obviously needed more scoring punch), Miller has slipped back to seven, five and eight shots against the last three opponents.

In a 118-94 loss to Golden State on Tuesday, Miller got up six shots in the first half, four of them in the game's first 9:22. After that, he didn't shoot again until the final 1:07 of extreme garbage time and finished 3-of-8 in 42 minutes. Miller wound up with 11 points and 13 rebounds, and led the Wolves in both assists (four) and turnovers (five) for the fourth straight game.

"He does a lot of stuff for us,'' McHale said. "He's a facilitator. He drives and kicks. He's just a very good basketball player. I think there are times when we have to facilitate for him a little more and try to get him open, and try to get some more stuff where he can get some shots.''

OK, but if someone had told you on the night you traded for Miller that he would shoot 50 percent less frequently this season than in his entire career? "I would have been very surprised,'' McHale admitted.

Besides, paying Miller $9 million this season and $9.8 million next season to facilitate is like hiring Kyle Busch to ride shotgun. He regularly passes up shots that are just as good as the ones he chooses to take. Or worse, he gives up the ball to lesser shooters in no better position to score than himself.

Told that a lot of Wolves fans would rather see Miller take a contested, off-balance shot than, say, Telfair aim one while wide open, Miller said: "I appreciate them saying that. But I've got to continue to go out there and do my job.''

Some have wondered about his confidence, others have questioned his commitment to a lousy, losing situation. But mostly, it's as if Larry Brown somehow crawled into Miller's head with his "play the right way'' mantra and never left. But playing the right way in the NBA means doing what you do well; rebounders rebound, passers pass, defenders defend, bench guys wave towels and cheer. And shooters shoot.

At least, they do after they're confronted about it. Warriors coach Don Nelson, in his fourth decade as an NBA coach and fifth if you go back to his playing debut in 1962, says he has seen many shooters who have been reluctant to shoot. The most famous? Steve Nash.

"My first years with Nash, he wanted to be John Stockton,'' Nelson said. "He wanted to get 10 points and 15 assists. I wanted him to get 20 and 10. I felt he could score 20 points a game, but it took me a year to get him to. I ended up having to get angry at him. He was getting booed and he stopped looking for his shot and the team was going poorly, and finally we just had it out after a game.

"I basically told him he had to do what I asked him to do. He had abilities he hadn't even scratched the surface on, and he turned out to be an All-Star for me [in Dallas] and an MVP [in Phoenix]. I just didn't want him to only pass. He was my best outside shooter and he would never take an outside shot.''

Nash averaged 7.9 and 8.6 points in his first two seasons with the Mavericks, then bumped to 15.6 in 2000-01. He was at 15.5 (2004-05) and 18.8 (2005-06) in his two NBA MVP seasons for the Suns.

"You want them to max out on their abilities,'' Nelson said. "You want players to do what they do, if they're good at it. They can work on what they're not good at it. But each guy has his strength, and he's got to go to that.''

Or in Miller's case, go back to that. Please. Immediately. Let. It. Fly.