It doesn’t work without Dwyane Wade.
Those were LeBron James’ words before the start of this season. For six months, they served as a constant reminder of how much gravity was resting atop Wade’s shoulders as his knees rested on the Heat’s bench.
With three championships in a row as the goal and with options on their contracts after this postseason, those knees needed to work in the playoffs.
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Not only has Wade played his part in these Eastern Conference finals, he also has outplayed James and provided some much-needed consistency to the lineup while James dithered defensively in Game 1 and twiddled offensively for three quarters in Game 2.
There have been plenty of times in the past three years when Wade has been thankful to be on the same team as James, but the pecking order has been flipped with Game 3 of this best-of-7 series on Saturday.
Lately, James should be grateful to be on a team with Wade. On Friday, Wade demanded more.
“For us, we haven’t played as well as we want to yet,” Wade said. “We have other levels that we have to reach. … We have to get to that level where we’re playing Miami Heat basketball. You guys know how that looks when we’re all on one court, and we’re all playing together.
“So we have a lot more improvement we could do in this series.”
The series is tied 1-1, and the Heat now has home-court advantage. But James hasn’t played his best basketball. For the two-time defending champions, that’s a position of strength. James is averaging 23.5 points per game and shooting 20 percent (2 of 10) from three-point range. Wade’s numbers have been phenomenal: 25 points per game and 64.7 percent shooting from the field.
“We figured out a way to win the ball game on the road, when they had control of it coming down [the] last three, four minutes,” Wade said of Game 2 in Indianapolis. “So that was a good team finding a way to win on the road versus another good team, but I don’t feel like we’ve played our best basketball.”
After a regular season dedicated to remaining healthy, Wade continues to improve physically as the Heat progresses through the postseason.
He carried the Heat to victory in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and he was the team’s most reliable offensive threat on Tuesday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Wade led the Heat with 23 points and was at his best at the beginning and end of the pivotal victory. There were plenty of questions surrounding the Heat’s longtime star entering the playoffs, but he has answered them so far.
Wade was 8 of 10 combined in the first and fourth quarters of Game 2, and he had 10 of the Heat’s 25 points in the final period. His prominent role in the Heat’s most important game of the postseason through the first three rounds added further proof that Wade is still one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. Wade missed 28 games during the regular season, and that maintenance program has helped the 32-year-old guard grow stronger through the playoffs.
“That was the plan,” Wade said. “I just want to continue it — just want to get better. There’s a lot of basketball left, but I feel good.”
Wade’s 23 points in Game 2 were a postseason high against the Pacers over the past two years. He averaged just 15.4 points against the Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals while struggling with chronic tendonitis in his knees. In the Heat’s 2012 series against the Pacers, Wade had fluid drained from his knee and at one point had to be removed from a team huddle to avoid a confrontation with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
Wade struggled throughout the 2013 playoffs with knee soreness and even produced a documentary to chronicle his struggles. In the offseason, Wade underwent OssaTron shockwave therapy to help strengthen his knees. The estimated full recovery time on that procedure was six months, and it appears Wade and the Heat’s training staff timed his recovery perfectly.
Of course, the best indication of Wade’s improving health perhaps was when his knee accidentally collided with the back of Paul George’s head in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Wade was slow to get up and limped off the court during a timeout, but he returned to finish the fourth quarter and even appeared to have a little more life in his legs than James late in the game.
James missed a breakaway layup with 3:18 left in the game, but Wade was there to clean up the miss with a putback dunk.
“Usually, D-Wade don’t even chase me down,” James said. “He knows if it’s a one-on-one matchup with me, most of the time I’m going to score. I was glad he did. … Huge momentum play in the fourth quarter when we needed it most.”
Said Wade: “Like he said, 99.9 percent of the time, when he’s one-on-one with someone, we take our chances. Just at that moment, I actually noticed he didn’t really get the acceleration like he needed. He took a step and didn’t get up.
“Normally he explodes, and there’s not many people that can meet him at the top. He didn’t get the explosion on the layup that he needed.”
The field goal gave the Heat a five-point lead, and Wade followed up that play with a steal seconds later on a bad pass by George. Wade guarded George, the Pacers’ best player, in the fourth quarter and limited him to six points.
“Dwyane has been one of the finer, more dynamic two-way players in this league for a long time,” Spoelstra said.
“He understands that as well as anybody that you can impact a win on both sides of the court. So, that’s not only creating the offense for us on the other end, it’s taking a challenge on one of the best scorers in the league.”
Wade then secured a key offensive rebound with 2:41 to play following a missed three-pointer by James. Wade later finished the possession with a five-foot jumper.
Then, following a tip-in by center Roy Hibbert on the Pacers’ next possession, Wade’s 18-foot jumper gave the Heat a seven-point lead with 1:37 to play.
Like an exclamation mark at the end of his statement game, Wade’s reverse dunk with 21.6 seconds remaining started the celebration for his teammates on the bench. Wade scored eight points in a row for the Heat during the game’s final two minutes.