WASHINGTON -- LeBron James has spoken at his locker 52 times after victories this season, but never was he happier than on Saturday night after losing by 13 points to the Atlanta Hawks.
The loss was all but meaningless despite the Eastern Conference standings. The 20 turnovers for 29 points didn’t matter either. What was important — all that was important — was also a cause for celebration. James’ running buddy, Dwyane Wade, returned to the starting lineup with three games remaining in the regular season, and he didn’t re-injure himself.
And, so, the back-to-back MVP was all smiles after the 98-85 defeat.
“For him to come out of this game and not have a setback, that’s the best part,” James said.
Wade — who had missed nine consecutive games with a hamstring injury — scored on his first seven attempts and finished with 24 points, going 10 of 14 from the field. He didn’t miss a shot until the third quarter, and he grew stronger with each shift on the court.
“We were able to get him out on the floor, get him into a good rhythm,” James said.
Wade played 23 minutes against the Hawks at Philips Arena, but could have continued. Originally, he was scheduled for 20 minutes, but Spoelstra spoke with the Heat trainers and Wade during the game, and all said Wade could play through that threshold. More than two weeks after checking himself out of the Heat’s loss in Indianapolis, Wade appears ready for the playoffs.
All in all, that makes this season a successful one despite it being the Heat’s worst since James and Chris Bosh joined Wade in 2010.
“Obviously, we were very encouraged,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “We’ll proceed with a very careful eye and see how he feels [Sunday]. He’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes. He probably felt like he should have been cleared a week ago, but we wanted to be very patient with him.”
Before the game, James said he expected Wade’sstamina to be below his normal standard, but Wade’s legs never weakened and the Heat’s shooting guard never asked to come out of the game. Wade didn’t play in any games over the past two weeks, but he worked out several times a day on the court in addition to training with weights and conditioning on the treadmill and stationary bike.
“I’ve just been a workout fiend,” Wade said. “It has been good to go from where you can’t do much, and then when you start feeling it turn a little bit, and then you start feel yourself getting a little better, then you feel yourself getting much better.
“Now, you’re able to start working and trying, as much as possible, to get some kind of flow, some kind of rhythm, some kind of confidence back in it. Being this close to the playoffs, I didn’t want to come back too soon. So it’s just trying to be as smart as I can be.”
The Heat will continue to be cautious, but if Wade’s body checks out Sunday, then he will probably play Monday against the Wizards. Washington is still competing for playoff position with the Bobcats, and Wade squaring off against Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal would be a good warmup for the postseason. Beal, who played at the University of Florida, is highly active (if not accurate) and averaging 17 points per game on 15.9 attempts.
Saturday was the Heat’s first game to feature Wade, James, Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem in the starting lineup together since early November and might be the last until the first game of the playoffs. That’s less than ideal, but Wade said he isn’t worried about cohesion.
“We didn’t have rhythm our first year together, and we went to the Finals,” Wade said. “That’s not really a big worry of mine. The best rhythm for us is all of us out there together on the floor, giving ourselves an opportunity every night. I just wanted to be back on the floor with them — the rhythm, it will take care of itself.”
Although Wade’s goal is to work his way back into shape before next week, quite the opposite is true for James and Bosh. Wade has missed 28 games this season, which means James and Bosh have carried the team. Both forwards could use off days, or, better yet, several off days in a row.
“It has been a helluva grind this year, and it hasn’t stopped,” Bosh said. “It’d be nice to get some days between games. March and April have been relentless and brutal.”
Getting some rest
Bosh has averaged 13.2 points since March 19 while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from three-point range. Considering he averaged nearly 18 points per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range in the first two months of the 2014, he could probably benefit from some rest.
James, meanwhile, could take Monday and Wednesday off despite the Heat trailing the Pacers by a half game for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I’ll be smart about it and go into the postseason as healthy as I can be,” James said. “The last three years, I’ve kind of done that, and I felt pretty good going into the postseason. Even after this seven-, eight-month grind, there’s nothing like the two months of the postseason.
“It’s harder than the eight months of the regular season. So I’ve got to be smart about it.”