There was this cool snapshot during Game 3, two styles and sizes and ages clashing at the height of competition. Slithering Kevin Durant, a star with a huge future, made a jump shot over an outstretched Dwyane Wade, a star with a huge past. Durant usually doesn’t talk very much but, on his way back down the court, back-pedaling, he took out his mouth guard so Wade could hear him enunciate clearly.
“Too small,” he spit at Wade, showing his teeth in more ways than one.
This was rather redundant, as the shot itself had revealed for all to see that Wade was indeed too small to interfere with it, but this ecosystem can be cruel that way, young coming after old rabidly and out loud, Michael Jordan demanding verbally in those Dream Team practices (and at the hotel coffee shop, as Larry Bird and Magic ate) that those stars hand the league over to him. Life sometimes being as circular as that basketball, a young Allen Iverson would cross-over Jordan at the top of the key many years later, one on one, and refer to it as a “clowning.”
James takes over
But then the fourth quarter arrived Sunday, the time that used to belong to Wade on this team and in this town, the time that stained LeBron James last June and the time that Durant, three-time scoring champion at 23, is now intent on making his own. That’s when Heat coach Eric Spoelstra put James on Durant for good, the Heat organization essentially responding to Durant’s too-small taunt with “How about some of this, Kevin? Is this too small?”
You know what happened after that. Durant started missing badly, James closed the game, Miami inched to within two victories of the trophy and the tectonic shift within the Heat organization was all but complete. This team and this title is LeBron’s now, a gimpy and older Wade needing so much help to keep pushing back time and these waves of young Oklahoma City talent.
It wasn’t supposed to get here this fast. The idea for the blueprint was that James and Chris Bosh, still in their prime, would help carry Wade when he got older, later in all their contracts, not in the second year. But Wade’s knee is balking, and he doesn’t have his normal explosion, and so he has looked old this postseason before he is actually old. It is very difficult, aging in this sport, young and aggressive piranha like Durant always hungry to take over the ecosystem. The 30-year-old Wade used to be the 23-year-old Russell Westbrook, all fast-twitch muscle fiber, getting whatever he wanted, but this postseason has been an unholy labor for him, and he has resigned himself to helping where and how he can when he isn’t losing the ball or complaining to the refs on clean strips that used to be fouls.
Despite all his muscled armor, despite his size and global stature, James has always been the little brother to Wade’s big brother in their relationship, as unique a friendship as you’ll find anywhere in sports. Wade is more mature, and his status as a champion made it so that James would follow him all of last year, right until the so very bitter end. He came to Wade’s team in Wade’s city to play in an arena Wade calls his house, trailing behind him the way little brothers do, and they tried to share so evenly and politely to make it work last year that each one of them took exactly 373 playoff shots.