The blueprint still works because Dwyane Wade remains one of the NBA’s elite players.
As the two-time defending champion Miami Heat begins preparation for its fourth consecutive Eastern Conference finals, it does so with arguably the best shooting guard in the NBA starting alongside LeBron James, the best player in the league. Plenty has changed about the Heat since the 2011 postseason, but that much has remained the same. There were plenty of questions and legitimate concerns about Wade’s health entering the playoffs, but all them, so far, have been answered.
And on Wednesday night in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets, Wade showed that he is only getting stronger as the postseason progresses. He scored 28 points after averaging 16.6 points per game to begin the playoffs.
“It was a mental change; my mind-set was to come out and be aggressive,” Wade said. “Once I came out with that mind-set and things started to get going, my body was really moving early.”
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Added Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: “He’s a playoff warrior.”
Wade scored 20 points in the first half and kept the Heat in the game while the rest of his team struggled against the Nets’ defensive adjustments from Game 4. The Heat was 1 of 16 from three-point range in the first half and multiple defenders hounded James consistently, but Wade provided a steadying hand. He was 7 of 12 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line.
Take away Wade’s numbers in the first half, and the Heat shot 24 percent from the field. Put another way, he made half of the team’s field goals in the first two quarters of the game.
“It was a huge game for him; I felt like he was going to have one of those games [Wednesday night],” James said. “He basically kept us afloat throughout our struggles. He got into the lane. He shot eight free throws [Wednesday night]. He was attacking and very aggressive. We needed him.”
Wade then gracefully got out of the way in the fourth quarter, encouraged James to take over and then found ways to interject himself in crunch time. Wade called it playing the role of the team’s “quarterback.”
“Dwyane told me to stop waiting and be aggressive,” James said. “I have to make plays, defensively and offensively, especially in a close-out game at home. I have to make a hand print on the game one way or another to help us win.”
Wade assisted on both of James’ fourth-quarter three-pointers, and Wade’s 10-foot turnaround jumper with 1:55 remaining made it a one-possession game. James had 14 points in the fourth quarter and was 8 of 10 from the free-throw line. He finished with 29 points.
“I just took it upon myself to be very aggressive early on, knowing that it was going to open the game up,” Wade said. “In the second half, I did not have to be as aggressive because other guys contributed. We have a lot more work to do, and we are a team that does not take it for granted.”
In other words, now comes the hard part.
Wade’s 28 points in the Heat’s close-out game of the Eastern Conference semifinals were his most this postseason, but he’ll need to do more in the next round. In the 2013 playoffs, some of the Heat’s struggles against the Indiana Pacers were magnified because of Wade’s limited mobility and chronic tendonitis in his knee. One year later, Wade has played quality defense through the postseason’s first two rounds — the most encouraging sign of his health — and he has had plenty of rest between series.
The Heat was off Thursday while awaiting its next opponent. On Thursday night, the Pacers eliminated the Wizards in six games to set up an Eastern Conference finals rematch with the Heat that begins Sunday in Indianapolis.
“We still have some business to take care of, but it is great to be able to put ourselves in a position to be able to get back to the NBA Finals,” James said. “We never shortcut the process, and we understand that each and every game is going to be a process for us. This is the reason we came together four years ago.”
Of course, the addition of Ray Allen has helped that process along. In Wade and Allen, the Heat has two future Hall of Famers at shooting guard. Allen’s three-pointer with 32 seconds left in Game 5 ended one postseason series, but more than anything the shot felt like the jumping-off point for something bigger.
“It’s special for us, but we want to continue to keep going,” Allen said. “It’s a small sign of success, but it’s only a stepping stone to where we want to get to. That in itself is an accomplishment.
“We ought to be proud of that, and we can celebrate [Wednesday night], then start thinking about the Eastern Conference finals.”