Greg Cote: Dwyane Wade’s health is key to Miami Heat’s 3-peat quest

04/08/2014 12:01 AM

04/08/2014 12:35 AM

The biggest threat standing between the Heat and a third consecutive NBA championship isn’t Indiana or Kevin Durant or even San Antonio.

It is Dwyane Wade in dress clothes instead of a uniform. (Our personal favorite: white suit over lavender shirt and bow tie). We’ve seen as much of Wade’s sartorial splendor as we have his basketball artistry this season, and that’s both the intrigue and angst for Miami as the playoffs near.

Wade has missed 25 games so far on account of his knees (maintenance or soreness), Achilles, ankle, groin, illness, migraines or hamstring. The latter is why he has missed the past six games in a row.

Will the sit-streak reach seven in a row Tuesday night vs. the visiting Brooklyn Nets? Probably, but who knows? Wade’s body has become a delicate thing demanding great care and coddling. Like an exotic sports car or thoroughbred racehorse, it capable of awesome power but also is high-strung and prone to breakdowns.

It needs fine-tuning or maybe a sugar cube.

The phrase “when healthy” has become a necessary suffix to any discussion of where Wade is in his career, at age 32, such as whether he remains an “elite” player. His season scoring average of 19.2 points is his lowest since his rookie year, but that’s misleading. Wade has been more efficient than ever, reflected in a career-best 54.6 percent shooting aim.

He remains capable of elite play, of game-turning bursts, of carrying an offensive load and taking pressure off LeBron James — when healthy.

But it is that disclaimer, that question, that hangs heavy. “When healthy” has become No. 3’s albatross.

Wade’s health could be the difference between an historic, dynasty-making three-peat and ultimate disappointment.

Perhaps even more important, Wade’s health could be the fulcrum on which James’ postseason free agency decision rests.

James and Wade are true friends, “brothers,” LeBron always says. But can James still trust and depend upon his brother on the court the way he does off it? Can he count on him to be in sneakers and not dress shoes?

James takes tremendous pride in his own ironman persona — and should. He is the greatest player in the NBA in part because he is always there. He has played 976 of a possible 1,019 regular-season and playoff games in his NBA career. When you consider major injuries to the likes of Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, James’ durability and good fortune should leave any Heat fan thankful.

It sometimes appears James, from that always-there vantage, is frustrated by Wade’s health issues, which would be natural. How could he not be? James has played through his own little issues, including a sore back.

Could he use a rest?

No, because missing games “has never been part of my DNA,” James says. “If I feel like I can give something, I got to be out there for my teammates. That’s my obligation: To be out there for them. I’m dealing with a few things, but for me to sit out, I have to be dealing with a lot more.”

We’d be reading too much into tea leaves to interpret that as a veiled shot at Wade. At the same time, James sidestepped a recent question about Wade’s health by rather pointedly saying, “I’m only concerned with guys who are in the lineup. I can’t worry about who’s not in the lineup. We want everyone healthy, but if not, I can’t worry about that.”

Miami has won at a .705 clip this season when Wade plays (36-15), versus a .680 pace when he sits out (17-8), but there should be no question that well beyond that differential the Heat is a better team and has a far better three-peat shot with a healthy Wade. Toney Douglas has filled in nicely, but he’s no Wade, especially in terms of offensive punch.

Wade’s alter ego, The Sitting Man, already is a factor now, not just when Game 1 of the first postseason series tips off, because now — the buildup to the playoffs — is when teams find cohesion and momentum. For Miami that has been tough with Greg Oden, Ray Allen and Chris “Birdman” Andersen all having recent health concerns in addition to Wade’s season-long issues.

“You want to have a rhythm going into the playoffs,” James said. “I’ve always wanted to have a rhythm going into the playoffs with the lineups and the flow, but this is a different season. Very different.”

James and Wade have been on the court together for only roughly half as many total minutes as last season, a stark drop-off. Even among four-year teammates rhythm “is something you can’t take for granted,” James said.

Coach Erik Spoelstra noted there is “a process to it.”

That process needs to get going.

Wade missed only one of 23 playoff games last year, but his knees troubled him throughout, contributing to a 15.9 postseason scoring average that was the lowest of his career. A repeat of that this time could see the Heat dethroned.

Miami needs to have the old Wade back, not the Wade who seems old.

Miami needs back the Wade who remains elite … when healthy.

The lavender shirt and bow tie look fabulous, don’t get me wrong.

But that No. 3 jersey fits the Heat so much better.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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