So much of the narrative entering these NBA Finals centered on LeBron James (of course). Would LeBron finally win his first championship? Would he rise to the occasion after faltering badly in the Finals one year earlier? Would he outperform Kevin Durant in the duel of superstars?
And all of that is fine and good and still accurate in terms of the broadest story line for this Heat-Oklahoma City Finals.
There was a different narrative emerging from the Heat’s 105-94 loss in Game 1 here, though — certainly from a Miami perspective, at least.
Dwyane Wade looked old.
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His game did, anyway. His performance did. And his ability to be his old self, meaning his younger self.
That might be harsh. It also might disappear in a massive comeback effort by Wade in Game 2 back here Thursday. We have seen it before. Wade down and doubted, using it as fuel, and proving everyone wrong.
They need that from him now.
They haven’t in this postseason, until now.
It became clear Tuesday, watching OKC’s youthful athleticism and scoring punch, that Miami cannot win this series and championship without Wade finding his high gear and once again being the clutch performer that helped make him — after Dan Marino — the most beloved professional athlete South Florida has had.
James has carried Miami to this point, in this MVP season of his, and into these Finals.
Now, he needs more help, and not just from the supporting cast like Chris Bosh (who came off the bench again) or Shane Battier, who scored 17 on Tuesday in a small rain of threes.
He needs more help from his old costar, D-Wade.
“Some nights I have big nights, some nights I don’t,” Wade said afterward. “That’s been the season, the way it’s designed.”
He meant that James was in the primary scoring role. Yet Wade managed 19 shots, a good amount. (Durant scored 36 points on only 20 shots).
The difference in Game 1 was that the Thunder got big performances from both of its top stars, with Durant scoring a game-high 36 points and Russell Westbrook 27.
And Miami got a big performance from only one of its two biggest stars, with James scoring 30 points — enough to hold his critics at bay if not quite placate them — but Wade managing but a subpar 19 points on poor 7-for-19 shooting.
That kind of night by Wade is enough to get by in the early rounds of the playoffs, maybe. Or perhaps when James is going crazy and dropping 45 like he did on Boston in Game 6.
But now? Against OKC? If Miami hopes to win it all?
If you figure James vs. Durant as a wash offensively, then Wade likely must outperform Westbrook for Miami to win this series. Tuesday, it wasn’t close.
There were curious coaching elements for Miami augmenting the loss. The thin bench late was partly because James Jones had a migraine, not Spoelstra’s fault. But LeBron didn’t defend Durant much, something that might change in Game 2.
This wasn’t about coaching, though.
It was about Wade not being Wade, on a night and in a series when they need him to be quite desperately.
The Heat needs James and Wade to be costars again. By that I mean just as much James, and much, much more Wade.
If that happens, this series is going to be fun, and brutally even, and long, a two-week thrill ride, ending unknown. Not four, not five, not six, these NBA Finals will stretch to the full seven games I’d say, even if the Thunder’s fourth-quarter burst Tuesday maybe put that in some doubt.
For now, whether the Heat or Oklahoma City will win this championship is still far less knowable (even Miami’s opening loss) than the fact the league and this sport already have won with this contrasting, exciting matchup and the two young superstars driving it, pedals down.
Beyond the civic disparity of Oklahoma’s prairies vs. the glitz of South Beach, the Thunder is organically grown, borne of the draft and homegrown development, vs. Miami’s spending hugely in free agency to add James and Bosh to Wade.
What sells the series nationally, though, is James vs. Durant. These two, on full display and at full speed, is the best advertisement this sport has had in a long time.
You can have Derrick Rose. Keep Dwight Howard. Thank Kobe Bryant for the memories. Give respect to this series’ secondary stars, Wade and Westbrook.
Then just sit back and enjoy as the two best basketball players on Earth, friends but not right now, spin their personal highlight reels while trying to carry their team as far as a team can possibly go.
Give Game 1 to Durant over James, though narrowly. It was Durant who came on late, with a 23-point second half, on a night when the game gradually slipped away from the Heat.
Miami led by as many as 11 in a first quarter marked by Oklahoma City’s skittish, rim-clanking shooting against Miami’s more confident strokes. It looked like what it was right then: A young Thunder team in the Finals for the first time against a veteran Heat squad accustomed to this biggest stage and its searing lights.
By halftime, the Miami lead had been carved to seven.
After three quarters, the Heat trailed by one, OKC seizing its first lead with 16.4 seconds left in the quarter on Westbrook’s three-point play.
The Heat had led throughout right until then, and yet right then it felt like Miami was hanging on. The decibel levels in the place were head-banging again.
Even losing the Finals opener, the lessons of premature panic are fresh for Miami and its fans, like wet paint.
Wasn’t it just the last series when Boston led by three games to two heading back up there and even many Heat fans weren’t waiting for a cold body to start spading dirt on the team?
The series before that, Indiana led by two games to one heading back up there and Wade was screaming at his coach on the sideline and South Florida panic was going full-bore.
Miami recovered both times.
Oklahoma City is different, though.
The Heat still has a great chance, but only if Dwyane Wade rediscovers his greatness.