SALT LAKE CITY — Fifteen years ago, Andre Miller had just finished helping lead his University of Utah basketball team to the NCAA tournament's Final Four, where the upstart Utes went all the way to the title game and almost shocked the world.
Yes, on March 30, 1998, Miller and his Utah teammates had big-bad powerhouse Kentucky on the ropes for much of the game before faltering down the stretch in an eventual 78-69 loss to their perennial postseason nemesis in the national championship showdown.
Fifteen years later, Miller came back once again to the city where he spent his stellar collegiate career. And this time he helped his Denver Nuggets team slam a serious dent in Utah's NBA playoff hopes with a decisive 113-96 victory over the Jazz on Wednesday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
Starting at point in place of the injured Ty Lawson, Miller wound up with a typical Andre-type performance — 13 points, six assists, a couple of rebounds and a steal — as Denver snapped Utah's five-game winning streak and dropped the Jazz (39-37) a half-game behind the Los Angeles Lakers (39-36) in the all-too-tight race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Asked how important Miller's veteran savvy is to the Nuggets' strong showing this season — the Nuggets are currently the third-best team in the West — Denver coach George Karl didn't hesitate to give the cagey guard plenty of credit.
"We only have, what, two guys over 26 years of age, and he is one of them," Karl said. "We're so young, and just the way he handles the team. You all don't see it, but in practice he's even better than in the games, and in the locker room he's even better than in practice.
"As a coach, I think we all understand that the glue guy or the mature guy or the plucky guy or the tough-minded guy in this league is so important. I mean, when tough times come or you don't play well and you get on a losing streak, you need someone that's been there before. And Andre is very special in understanding the league.
" And if he wants to be a coach, he can be a coach," Karl said. "He has enough intelligence and awareness of what's going on in this league. We would be a young team and not having the success we're having if we didn't have Andre Miller."
Sure, the 38-year-old Miller will never be mistaken for being the most spectacular point guard in NBA history — instead, he's a super-steady grinder who's always reliable and just gets the job done, day in and day out.
And while you might not see the word "flashy" in the same sentence with Miller's name, you'll certainly see the word "durable." After all, he's only missed four games in his 14-year career due to injury, and in nine of his NBA seasons, he has played in every one of his team's games. During one impressive stretch from 2003 to 2010, he played in 632 consecutive games.
Earlier this season, Miller became just the eighth player in NBA history to have 15,000 points and 7,500 assists in his career. In fact, he ranks 10th in NBA history in career assists and, over his career, he has averaged 13.8 points, 7.1 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
Indeed, he is a pro's pro, a guy with grit, guile and determination.
"You don't see what he does — the behind-the-scenes stuff," Karl said. "The stuff you guys don't see in the preseason, when he'll take the four worst guys in the gym and beat the five best players in the gym five, six games in a row and just laugh at them and talk trash.
"He just believes in the team and believes in himself. He believes in team basketball."
And it certainly shows.
Asked if it was still special to come play in the Beehive State so many years after his collegiate days at Utah were long since passed, Miller said, "Always. It's even better to win in this tough building. I was able to see some friends in the stands that I haven't seen in a few years. It just felt good to get a win.
"You reminisce a little bit," Miller said of that memorable 1998 Final Four experience. "Those were the best years of my life, college experience, and I reflected a little bit (this past week). But you move on.
"It's fun. This is a different environment than in college, but you still have friends in the community that come support you, and they've been doing that for a long time. I enjoy that part."
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