A Miami Heat weakness? These pieces don’t fit perfectly. A Heat strength? The friendship of the two men at the center of the puzzle. Just six victories from the trophy, which will triumph? The weakness or the strength?
Miami, great as it is, should be better, right? But it is not. That much has become clear after two years of this riveting experiment. Miami isn’t leaps-and-bounds better than the elite. Boston won the title in 2008 immediately after bringing three lesser talents together — producing the league’s best record, its 66 wins the second-most in the fabled franchise’s history — because those parts and skills congealed more effortlessly than these, with less colliding redundancy. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen occupied different parts of the floor, so they could be three artists working on three different canvasses. Here, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade must always share that paint.
This fundamental flaw in Miami’s blueprint can be overcome, given the size of the talent and the will. Miami was within two victories of doing so last year. But it doesn’t make the weakness any less so. And that brings us to how James and Wade have chosen to attack the dilemma this year, relying on a bond that strengthens even as so many things test it, maybe because so many things test it. This friendship, seen growing before your eyes in celebratory pictures together at weddings and engagement parties, might be the only thing under-covered about this wonderfully noisy team.
LeBron came to Wade’s city to be by his friend’s side. Wade, not the MVP, gets introduced last at games, to the largest ovation. Wade, not the MVP, was the guy at the center of the magazine covers the three shared. Wade, more often than not, has had the ball at the end of games. If you think these are small things that don’t break up big egos — the need for credit and validation, and the resentments that need can bring — you don’t remember how the championship partnerships of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant dissolved. James and Wade are attempting to navigate around the land mines that break up rock groups.
(The Eagles came to blows backstage during a concert once, Glenn Frey announcing that the group would reunite when “Hell freezes over.” That’s why the 1994 reunion tour was called Hell Freezes Over.)
But Wade, always a lead singer, has willingly handed the microphone to James this season. Miami lost doing it another way last year, Chris Bosh being the only one who actually sacrificed his game as Wade and James just took turns with the ball and the stage. Look at the numbers from last postseason. In 21 playoff games, Wade and James took an identical 373 shots. This year? In 14 playoff games, James has taken 297 and Wade has taken 256. Wade has, by his own admission, stepped back because he knows LeBron is a better player, the most efficient in the league. In Oklahoma City, meanwhile, Russell Westbrook had taken more playoff shots than scoring champion Kevin Durant (236 to 223) entering Saturday night’s game.
So here’s the result as Wade tries to work around the MVP and become more of a helpful sidekick:
Wade has scored 25 points or fewer in 10 of 14 playoff games this year. James has gone under 25 just twice. It isn’t just because James is playing better, though he is; it is because his friend Dwyane has made a conscious effort to get out of his way. Last year? In 21 playoff games, as he just tried to fit in with his friend, James scored 25 points or fewer 13 times, including all six NBA Finals games.