Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Mental game is now Dwyane Wade’s ticket to success

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade takes the ball downcourt during the second half against the Sacramento Kings, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Kings 116-109.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade takes the ball downcourt during the second half against the Sacramento Kings, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Kings 116-109. AP

There was a play early Thursday night that embodies the player Dwyane Wade believes he has become, and it wasn’t any of the season-high 23 shots he took in the win against Sacramento. Rather, it was a connection with Chris Bosh that was the product of preparation, communication and recognition, an understanding not only of his own circumstances but that of a teammate.

“I missed a free throw, we got a rebound, Josh [McRoberts] hit me, and I had the floater [available],” Wade said. “And I just hit Chris, and he put it in. Just talking to him before the game, I knew he needed an easy bucket. We both struggled last game, we both needed something easy. Stuff like that is how I think. You’ve got to figure out ways to affect the game, affect your teammates.”

Think.

That’s a word Wade uses more commonly now, in description of his duties, not because he wasn’t capable, but because it often seemed superfluous.

“I didn’t have to think about the game until ’Bron and Chris came down [in 2010],” Wade said about the Big 3 era with LeBron James. “I mean, I just played. I shot when I wanted. I passed when I wanted. And then when they came down, I had to become more of a thinker. And sometimes you don’t want that, because it takes away from just natural instincts.”

Now, at 33, it’s necessary for another reason.

“The older you get, and the way your game changes, you have to think the game more than just physically taking off from the free-throw line and just see what happens,” Wade said. “You have to think about doing that.”

This is definitely worth thinking about as you watch him now, as you wonder why he can look so fluid some nights and a bit flustered on others. What was mostly an athletic exercise has become largely an intellectual one, and that, for any athlete, doesn’t always appear as smooth. This is true for him even though he believes the thought-out Big 3 sacrifices have aided this latest chapter of his career; he’s quicker to identify and “snap out of” frustration funks that come from over-thinking.

With that said, though, he’s not pretending to be completely comfortable with his current situation. Not yet.

“Not really,” Wade said. “I’m still figuring it out. Obviously, when it clicks, it clicks, it flows good. But there are certain moments, you can still tell, we’re a new team together, we’re still trying to get to our game.”

He knows his role is primarily to use screens to get in the paint, making plays for himself or, if he draws defenders, others. To attack.

“But from night to night, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to get this shot or that shot,” Wade said. “It just varies.”

It depends not only on the opponent’s defensive approach (“what they’re going to allow”) but also on his teammates.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who have an offensive mind-set in here, who can be aggressive,” Wade said. “Goran [Dragic] can get in the paint a lot. Tyler [Johnson] can. I can. It’s a different dynamic than we’ve had, so it kind of changes things up at times.”

It can create a conundrum for a coach, too. Erik Spoelstra, who knows Wade’s game better than anyone, preaches ball movement to the collective. Yet Wade is still sometimes at his offensive best when acting as a ball-stopper, whether at the top or in the post.

How does Spoelstra want that balance struck?

He spoke first of the growth of Wade’s IQ. He recalled the young Wade as “a force of nature,” who would attack on every possession, usually seeking a score.

“You were going to have to adjust to him, he wasn’t going to adjust to you,” Spoelstra said.

Now, though, Spoelstra sees someone who “understands layers and the bigger picture and how to get people involved and when to attack and when not to. And that’s not a perfect line and balance. Sometimes, all of a sudden you’re doing one thing, and you fall out of rhythm in another thing. But we want him to be an attacker.”

An attacker, sometimes an unexpected agenda.

Like the surprise, but purposeful, pass to Bosh. As Bosh noted, you once could run “angle” for Wade all game, and watch him explode for 40.

“It’s not like that anymore,” Bosh said. “We have to kind of read and react and play off of each other. It definitely makes you think the game of basketball and how to play it better. .... We have to be in rhythm to be effective. If not, the young guys are going to cut us off when we’re trying to make a move from 10 years ago. It’s not going to work like that.”

When will Wade have everything working as he wants?

“I don’t know,” Wade said. “It’s tough. Because sometimes you think you’ve figured it out, and then you may go through three games where you ain’t figured it out. It’s a long season.”

We’re not deep into it, but he’s already deep in thought.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Saturday: 76ers at Heat

When, where: 8 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.

TV, radio: SUN; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).

Series: Tied 53-53.

Scouting report: The 76ers keep asking their fans to “Trust the Process,” but the process has been more than a little problematic. Philadelphia has just one player older than 24 years older, and the inexperience shows. Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel look like cornerstone players, but the backcourt remains fairly barren, and this should be an easy win for Miami.

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