IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Miami Heat’s playoff health tied to Dwyane Wade

 
WEB VOTE Which Chicago Bulls player do you dislike most?

gcote@ MiamiHerald.com

Most of the unusually low numbers from this game should delight Heat fans. Those numbers stunk up this city Monday night and all but required the Bulls arena to be immediately fumigated following this NBA playoff series Game 4 here. Those numbers were Chicago’s meager 65 points scored on abysmal 25.7 percent shooting — both owing largely to a Miami defense that is that good, yes.

Two other unusually low numbers should give a Heat fan pause moving forward in this postseason. Those numbers were Dwyane Wade’s six points Monday on 3-of-10 shooting, on a right knee that isn’t right and might not be as Miami chases a second NBA title in a row.

Shooting pain and a shooting guard are not a friendly combination.

A wincing Wade removed himself at one point from his scoreless first half. A bandage on his bruised knee was removed and replaced, then encased again in a black elastic wrap before he returned to the court.

“Just shooting pain,” he described it casually after the Heat stomped Chicago 88-65 for a 3-1 series lead heading back to Miami. “It hurts, but we were able to retape it and come back. It’s frustrating, but you try to do what you can.”

Wade and his health have become the great wild card in the Heat’s run to repeat.

You will otherwise get from Miami what you got Monday night: a bedrock of LeBron James’ greatness — he had 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds — and the fundamentally rugged, at times suffocating defense that this club considers its identity.

Miami took early command and siphoned the sound from the home crowd; the loudest thing in the arena was sideline reporter Craig Sager’s violet crushed velvet jacket. As the clock ran away from the Bulls, their fans turned this place so quiet you could hear a chin drop.

Wade is the big mystery. He is what you cannot count on from game to game anymore, not because he is 31 now and not because he defers to James now even when healthy. It’s that knee. It has changed who he is able to be.

And the unspoken reality is this:

Miami didn’t need Wade at all to waltz past Milwaukee in the first round, when he rested the final game of a four-game sweep.

Miami obviously doesn’t need Wade’s A-game to get past a game but lame Chicago.

But Miami will need more from Wade, chances are, than the 12.3 points per game he is providing thus far in the postseason. It will need something far closer to Wade being far closer to himself in the next round and then in the Finals.

Can he be?

“He’s not the same guy!” cried TV analyst Charles Barkley at halftime Monday.

Well, no duh, Chuck. Of course he isn’t. … But can he be?

One star guard in this series, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, politely declines to play through the pain and compete on a knee he doesn’t quite trust.

The other star guard in this series, Miami’s guy, is doing both.

It is admirable. But right now Wade has become almost a decoy out there, someone unable to compete with the frenetic pace. You see it in small snapshots. Like in Monday’s fourth quarter when he was fed an alley-oop pass for a would-be dunk but could not climb high enough to get it. Or later when Wade had a jump shot blocked by Taj Gibson.

Wade is having trouble creating his own shots right now. He did not get to the free-throw line at all Monday.

What’s troubling is that not even Wade is sure if his knee will feel fine at any point in the postseason or if this Wade facsimile is what Miami must adjust to.

“Some days are better than others,” he said. As for the in-game pain that required a quick rest and a bandage change Monday? “First time y’all seen it,” he said, and smiled slyly. “Other times I’ve been able not to show y’all.”

It was surprising, almost shocking, to see Wade still playing late in the lopsided game, until coming out during a mass substitution with 2:38 to play. It suggested the risk of aggravating the injury is not as great as the need to play through it, to get past it.

Plain logic suggested Wade should have been resting long before then. To a layman’s view it also seems obvious Wade should sit out Game 5 Wednesday back in Miami.

It is a sensitive subject with the team.

“Look, the thing about Dwyane, he understands more than anybody: Just help us win,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Is he giving us 30 [points]? No. But he’s doing things to help us win. He’ll continue to get in a better rhythm.”

Wade had scored a quiet 10 points in Game 3, taking only seven shots — including a nearly invisible one shot in the first half. Characteristically, he did not blame the knee, but rather the “flow of the game.”

“Dwyane has been having a tough time getting into the flow,” confirmed Chris Bosh.

He needs to get into that flow, a flow he once created, if his knee will allow it.

Wade hates to talk about his injury, his knee, his health. One, to address it sounds like he is using a crutch, making an excuse. Two, “it becomes a mental thing,” he admitted after a practice during the first-round series. The more you are asked about it, the more you think about and think, “I’m not right.”

A similar scenario played out with Wade one year ago in the playoffs. Remember? His knee wasn’t quite right, though that wasn’t widely known. He scored only five points in a second-round loss in Indiana during which he was caught yelling at Spoelstra.

Wade’s frustration became a national story. He seemed suddenly old, suddenly past his prime.

From that point, he averaged 24.1 points to help lead the championship run.

Wade is a proud and sensitive man. Doubt him and you fuel him.

Only the player and club medics know right now if what ails his game is physical or as much a matter of “rhythm,” as his coach said.

Either way, the doubt and question linger whether Wade’s knee will allow him to regain his star this postseason and be the explosive offensive force Heat fans and opponents have known so well.

It feels as if the answer and Miami’s repeat title dreams will be intertwined.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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