Dwyane Wade’s biggest assist is learning to defer to more-talented LeBron James

06/18/2012 5:00 AM

09/08/2014 5:56 PM

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.

Remember that coughing “incident” during The Finals last year, when Wade and James mocked Dirk Nowitzki’s sickness? That was Wade out in front, James lagging behind him symbolically, Wade mocking Nowitzki first for the cameras and James then following his lead. This year, though, James is clearly out in front with Wade choosing, with rare self-awareness, that he needs to be in James’ substantive shadow. This year, James has 463 playoff shots to Wade’s 395.

Big tension

If you don’t think that gulf matters, consider the tension in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook has shot this postseason more than Durant. Wade has stepped to the side, willingly, acknowledging out loud that James is better than he is even though athletes are terrible self-evaluators, which is why so many of them hang on too long. Confidence is always last to go, and the mirror is always last to know. Wade says stepping aside has been very tough for him. Within the context of team sports, it is maybe the most mature thing the big brother has ever done.

There are things that Durant does better than James — his jump shot is cleaner, his free throws are better — but here’s why Miami is up 2-1 in this series even though there isn’t very much difference between these two teams: When James guarded Durant late Tuesday, he bothered him.

When Durant guarded James, he got in foul trouble. Without a word, James rebutted Durant’s “too small” with a very obvious “too skinny.”

“LeBron affects KD more than KD affects LeBron,” Utah guard Raja Bell says.

Game 3 was not art or ballet or acrobatics. This was construction work. The Heat played a horrific offensive basketball game in Game 3. Just awful. It wasn’t just Mario Chalmers going 1 for 8 or Chris Bosh going 3 for 11 or the entire team making only 1.6 out of every 10 shots it took outside the paint. Keep in mind, according to ESPN.com, Miami attempted 19 shots more than three feet away from the right side of the rim, and missed all 19. It is damn near impossible to win this kind of game ever, against even a bad team, never mind against a great one in The Finals. But win it Miami did because James was a wrecking ball in the paint, as he has been throughout this postseason.

Tough matchup

Here’s how complete his performance was: He got Durant in foul trouble. James Harden, sixth man of the year, has been terrible in two games at least in part because his defensive responsibility has been too much James. Westbrook is taking more shots than Durant partially because he is having trouble getting the ball to Durant in the right positions when James is guarding him, so he abandons the option.

And, at the end, up four points as Oklahoma City had the ball, James became a coach, too, forcibly moving Udonis Haslem into a different position on an inbound pass on what became the game-ending turnover because of James’ repositioning of a veteran.

Afterward, James and Wade walked off the court, into the tunnel, with their arms around each other, just as they had after Game 2, James looking so much larger than Wade, one of them growing before our eyes while the other begins the cruel aging process.

Little brother? Big brother?

Doesn’t matter now.

Not as long as they remain brothers.

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