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Quiet leader Miller putting together career year

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Quiet leader Miller putting together career year

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger stopped by Heath Miller's locker and decided it was time to throw his tight end's hat into the political ring.

``Forget Pro Bowl, I'm going to make him president of the United States,'' the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback said with a laugh.

When asked what Miller's platform would be, Roethlisberger - who installed himself as Miller's campaign manager - kept it simple.

``You should be tough, be tough like Heath,'' he said.

Forgive Roethlisberger for his exuberance, and never mind that at age 30 Miller is still too young to run for the White House. Considering the way Miller has quietly and responsibly carried himself through his steady eight-year career, it's no wonder Roethlisberger wouldn't mind having his good friend running the country.

Not that Miller would consider it. Running for president would require bringing attention to himself, something Miller has avoided with the same kind of agility that's made him one of the league's most consistent tight ends for the better part of a decade.

Even now, in the midst of perhaps his finest season, Miller seems just happy to do his part for a 3-3 team still searching for a rhythm heading into Sunday's game against Washington (3-4).

Listen to Miller talk and you wouldn't think he's second on the team in receptions (31) and tied with New England's Rob Gronkowski for the NFL lead for touchdown catches by a tight end with five. On paper - and on the field - it looks like Miller is in the midst of a career year. Not that he's paying attention or anything.

``You can look at the stats and make determinations based on that but I feel I'm the same player I've always been,'' Miller said.

One that may finally be stepping into the spotlight whether he likes it or not.

Roethlisberger has always considered Miller a ``security blanket'' since the day the Steelers selected him in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. The bond between the two appears stronger than ever, particularly around the goal line.

Miller's touchdowns this season have all been nine yards or less, a tribute to the way Miller can get his 6-foot-5 frame to work within confined spaces. In last week's 24-17 win over Cincinnati, Miller cut across the middle, hauled in a fastball from Roethlisberger then absorbed a couple of shots before coming down with the ball to help the Steelers tie the game late in the first half.

``He catches it with his hands, he gets hit by a bunch of guys, holds on,'' Roethlisberger. ``You've got to enjoy throwing to a guy like that.''

And while Miller often doesn't show it, he enjoys playing like that. His post-touchdown celebrations are often muted affairs. He's only too happy to leave the turf-thundering spikes to Gronkowski.

Every once in a while - particularly if he thinks the Steelers need a lift - Miller will provide a glimpse of what's going on underneath the helmet.

On the road with the season at a critical point against a division rival turned out to be one of those times.

Standing in the end zone in hostile territory, Miller looked up into the crowd and flexed just before getting mobbed by his teammates. The uncharacteristic outburst didn't go unnoticed, even if Miller sheepishly and sincerely insists it wasn't planned.

``It's cool to see him show emotion because he's such a reserved guy,'' rookie tight end David Paulson said. ``When he makes plays he gets the whole team going ... he does everything right.''

The Steelers are relying on that leadership more than ever. When injuries to the offensive line forced Pittsburgh to start rookie Mike Adams at right tackle last week against Cincinnati's aggressive front seven, the team lined Miller up to Adams' right early in the game to take some of the pressure off until Adams could settle in.

Perhaps it's no coincidence most of Pittsburgh's season-high 167 yards rushing came right behind Miller.

It's that dedication to being all facets of his position that led Roethlisberger to call Miller ``maybe the best teammate I've played with at any level.''

That selflessness, however, has rarely led to personal accolades. Miller went to the Pro Bowl in 2009 but has spent the majority of his career in the shadows of players who have put up gaudier numbers.

Miller would appreciate a trip to Hawaii but hopes he doesn't get to go if selected. He'd rather be getting ready for the Super Bowl the last weekend in January if given the choice.

It's typical Miller, who is making a case that he's the best tight end in franchise history. His next touchdown catch will tie Elbie Nickel's team record for scoring grabs by a tight end (37). He's already third on Pittsburgh's all-time reception list (368) and should move into second at some point if he continues to stay healthy.

Miller shrugs off his ascension up the ladder, calling it merely a byproduct of longevity.

``If you stick around long enough, I guess those things come,'' he said. ``I've been here awhile and fortunately I've been with a good quarterback for all those years so I think that counts for a lot.''

So does working with a metronome-like consistency that sometimes gets taken for granted, just not by his quarterback, who believes Miller the best player at his position in the NFL.

``Absolutely,'' Roethlisberger said. ``People are going to argue with numbers, but all around tight end, no doubt about it.''

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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John Wall badly wants to win and is sick of perception he cares more about his own stats

John Wall badly wants to win and is sick of perception he cares more about his own stats

John Wall is ready to put the 2017-18 season behind him, behind him like a hapless defender staring at the back of his No. 2 jersey on a fastbreak. 

After missing 41 games due to injuries and falling in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career, the Wizards' All-Star point guard is taking nothing for granted. The 28-year-old believes he's about to lead the most talented team he's ever played on.

Wall has made five All-Star teams and one All-NBA selection. After playing for two seasons without one, he signed a reportedly five-year shoe deal with Adidas in 2018. He has a supermax contract, one that kicks in next season and begins at a projected $37.8 million.

What Wall doesn't have is what he's always wanted most. He wants to win.

The Wizards have made the playoffs four times in his career and reached the second round three times. The Eastern Conference Finals, however, has been elusive.

"I'm the type of guy that wants to have a statue out front. I want to bring a championship here. Those are all the things that I care about," Wall told NBC Sports Washington. "If you're not winning as a group and doing things as a team, then you don't get individual success. That's something that I learned a long time ago."

There was a lot about the 2017-18 season that bothered Wall. In particular, he detested the perception that grew that he was unhappy with the team's success while he was injured. 

During Wall's second injury absence, from late January to late March, the Wizards won five straight games and 10 of 13 with him watching from the sidelines.

Though it ultimately proved to be a mirage, as the Wizards lost 12 of their next 17 that he didn’t play, there were numbers early on that suggested their success was because they passed the ball more frequently without him. Comments from his teammates Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat to reporters and on social media were viewed by some as slights to their point guard.

Wall remained silent at first and a lack of communication between the sides allowed it all to bottle up. He did several interviews, including one with NBC Sports Washington, to give his side of the story and to say it was ridiculous he could be criticized for not being a team player.

That narrative still bothers him.

"Some people mistake me that all I care about is individual stats but that's never been my game," he said. "I don't think a lot of people really get that."

"I love to get assists. I love to get 10 assists before I score 30 points. It's just that I have the ability to do both. A lot of guys never had the ability to be able to do both. It's great to do that, but I feel like if I ain't winning then it don't mean s*** to me."

Wall's numbers are historically good for his age and he is aware of the company he's in. He is one of only four players to average at least 18 points, nine assists and four rebounds per game through their first eight NBA seasons. The other three were Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Chris Paul. Johnson and Robertson are Hall of Famers and Paul will be there someday. 

Statistically, Wall is on a Hall of Fame track, but he wants much more than a plaque in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"I think about all of that. Everybody thinks about the Hall of Fame and being the franchise scoring leader and all that," he said. "I have all of those goals, but it don't mean s*** if you don't win at the end of the day. You can be a loser and have all of these records, but what does that stand for?"

Wall has been relatively fortunate throughout his career when it comes to his health, but his worst injuries have come at inopportune times. In 2015, his Wizards were up 1-0 on the Hawks in the second round of the playoffs when he suffered five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand. That may have cost him a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Last year, Wall's months-long injury saga began when he banged his knee with a Mavericks player in just the 10th game of the season. 

It was a down year for him and the Wizards in a season in which the Cavaliers were vulnerable, the Celtics had major injuries and the Sixers were still learning how to win. If Washington was at full-strength, perhaps they could have taken advantage.

Now, after an offseason that brought newcomers Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to Washington, and that saw LeBron James leave the Eastern Conference, Wall feels he has a serious opportunity to win.

He just wants to get back to the postseason and take another shot at a deep playoff run he believes he is destined for.

"We had a great chance [in 2017]," he said. "We just s***ed the bed. That's how it goes. I don't think [time is] running out, but teams are getting better."

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

On Saturday, the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals faced off against one of the hottest young teams in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was viewed as a marquee matchup and it certainly lived up to its billing with both teams battling in a tight, well-played game.

In the end, Toronto walked away as the 4-2 victors in one of their better wins of the young season, but not everyone left that game impressed.

A team that already boasted super-star talent Auston Matthews added John Tavares in the offseason as a free agent giving the Maple Leafs a formidable one, two punch at center. For most of the game, the Caps were able to shut down that center tandem.

Lars Eller was asked after the game how the Caps were able to keep the Leafs’ big stars in check and he indicated that perhaps Tavares and Matthews were not as formidable a pair as they had been made out to be.

“We’re used to playing against [Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin],” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there so it’s not that special. It’s a good team like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I think.”

Not surprisingly, that quote caught Toronto’s attention, especially forward Nazem Kadri.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Kadri called Eller’s comments “bulletin board material.”

With 12 points in seven games, the Maple Leafs currently boast the top record in the league. Toronto is far from perfect, however, and their defense remains a major question mark in whether this team is a true Stanley Cup contender.

But as to whether or not they are a playoff team? That seems like a pretty safe bet.

The Caps and Maple Leafs will meet twice more this season on Jan. 23 and Feb. 21. Both games are in Toronto.  

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