LeBron James may be the body of the Miami Heat, and what an otherworldly body he is, especially on a night such as Thursday, when his muscle and nerve overwhelmed the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA playoffs.
But Dwyane Wade will always be the soul of the Miami Heat.
James is an import, a merger acquisition, some would say a mercenary. A Best Actor who needed an adroit supporting cast. A king in search of a throne.
Wade was groomed here and bloomed here, maturing from shy kid to thoughtful superstar, style icon and devoted father. He was Shaquille O’Neal’s “little brother” and Pat Riley’s protégé. He led the Heat to its championship in 2006 by averaging 34.7 points in phenomenal performances as NBA Finals MVP.
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He weathered the lean years, and, in 2010-2011, the mean year, when the Big Three’s pre-celebration of multiple titles was maliciously mocked.
In this, the Heat’s self-proclaimed “no excuses” year, Wade has flickered while James has burned. In the postseason Wade has been inconsistent, hurt, angry and disengaged. In the Eastern Conference finals against Boston, tied 3-3 going into Saturday’s decisive Game 7, he has been a slow starter and an unreliable finisher.
Wade hasn’t been himself.
But the Heat’s second do-or-die test within 48 hours could summon vintage Wade, the twirling, curling, whirling dervish. The time is ripe to see Wade put balls in the basket the way chefs put eggs in a bowl – either with a gentle flourish or an authoritative crack.
A trip to the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City is on the line, but more than that: The Heat is expected to win the NBA championship in Year Two of the Big Three. They were expected to win it last year.
“We have our own internal expectations, and those are higher than anybody else’s,” Wade said. “I’m only playing for championships, man. You don’t know how many opportunities you’ll get. I don’t play this game for stats or awards.”
Wade seems calm and focused when you talk to him, but in action he’s often adrift out on the frontier of games. His shot selection has been un-Wade-like when he’s settled for long jumpers instead of driving inside.
Wade has unselfishly relinquished the reins to James, and that’s part of Wade’s identity problem. But Wade must still be the leader of this team.
He is averaging 21.2 points against Boston, five points less than against Indiana, and his accuracy has declined since the first round, from 51 to 44 percent. In Game 2 vs. Boston, he scored just two points in the first half and in Game 3 he took just one shot in the first quarter. In the six games, he is shooting 12 for 46 (26 percent) in the first half for a total of 35 points. He has scored 92 in the second halves.
In Game 6, Wade made 6 of 17 shots while a possessed James gave the finest NBA playoff performance since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 with 45 points and 15 rebounds. It is James who has carried the Heat and the burden of being the villain for fans anxious to see him fail.
It’s Wade, however, who has not risen to the challenge. Yet. When it’s come down to the last 24 seconds, he has missed three game-winning or tying shots. If not for James being the more dynamic of the duo, the Heat would be done.
Wade lashed out at coach Erik Spoelstra and sought advice from his college coach. Something is missing. After nine high-mileage seasons, Wade, 30, can’t be expected to recover quickly. He has had knee and leg problems.
But everyone is gimpy by May. Ray Allen had to have his ankle “unhinged” by a doctor on Tuesday, Doc Rivers said. Paul Pierce is playing on a sprained knee.
Wade and Spoelstra insist there’s nothing wrong. Wade has been double-teamed by Boston defenders as Rivers picked his poison and chose to concentrate on Wade. He’s also “expending lots of energy,” Spoelstra said, guarding Rajon Rondo, who in Game 6 had a playoff-high seven turnovers and shot 2 for 7 against Wade. Wade also helped defend Kevin Garnett. Wade’s rebounding, assist and block numbers have increased.
Wade can be craftier on splitting double teams. He thrives with James when he’s cutting instead of waiting. Let’s see more of the beautiful reverse he had Thursday and less of the drive when instead of finishing with a finger roll, he paused, turned his back and dished.
“I’m not in an individual’s mind state,” Wade said. “I’m doing whatever I can to help us win. Certain shots hopefully I make that I missed. If not, I’ll still make an impact on the game. I’m not a one-dimensional player.”
He’s a player who can take basketball to another dimension. In Game 7, the Heat is ready to go with him.