Ethan J. Skolnick

As his 11th postseason opens, Dwyane Wade is still the Heat’s closer

There was much confusion after Dwyane Wade took and missed a buzzer-beating three-point shot the last time the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets played, on March 17, and enough controversy to light up all the sports-talk radio lines.

There was confusion among the fan base. Why would Wade be called upon, or call upon himself, to sink the only shot he hasn’t mastered, without a three-pointer in the calendar year of 2016? And why would coach Erik Spoelstra, knowing those numbers, call for an action that might create that option?

The most confusion, however, was felt by Wade and Spoelstra themselves.

Why, they wondered, would anyone question the ball being in Wade’s hands in crunch time?

And so, if you’re wondering what Wade’s role is, as his 11th postseason opens against those same Hornets, you can start right there. He is the closer. And now that LeBron James is no longer on his side — and Chris Bosh’s future remains uncertain — Wade will likely remain so, until his own career finally closes, and so long as Spoelstra is on the sidelines.

“I will go to my grave with Dwyane Wade making the decision at the end of the game,” Spoelstra said Friday, with Wade drenched in sweat shooting a few feet away. “Because I have seen him answer the bell so many times, in so many clutch, tough, high-pressure situations, that he’s never going to run from that situation. He’s going to revel in it. And ultimately, that’s probably the biggest hurdle in those moments. And he makes the right plays. Those are not easy plays. And the numbers on those plays league-wide are down.”

That is an empirically accurate assessment — NBA players typically shoot a few percentage points lower in what the NBA defines as a “clutch” situation (last five minutes, margin of five points or fewer) than in regular situations.

James dropped from 52.0 percent overall to 42.4 percent in the clutch, Stephen Curry from 50.4 to 44.2, Kevin Durant from 50.5 to 41.2, Russell Westbrook from 45.4 to 38.9, Paul George from 41.8 to 37.3, James Harden from 43.9 to 35.0, DeMar DeRozan from 44.6 to 39.0, Damian Lillard from 41.9 to 37.4, Kyle Lowry from 42.7 to 37.6 and Carmelo Anthony from 43.4 to 36.2.

Wade shot 45.6 percent overall … and 45.5 in the clutch. He did so taking the eighth-most clutch shots (101) in the league. And even after missing his first nine, he had a higher percentage than anyone in the top 30 other than Deron Williams (50.6 percent) or Jrue Holiday (45.6) and was tied with Jimmy Butler.

So it will take a lot to take away Spoelstra’s trust.

“How many of those has Dwyane made?” Spoelstra said. “How many big plays has he made? I’ll go to my grave, with no regrets on that.”

They go into this postseason together.

Again.

Trying to live another week, or month, or more.

WADE READY FOR NO. 153

Wade is told that he has played in 150 playoff games.

“One hundred fifty-four,” the three-time champion quickly corrected.

Actually, it’s 152; the Heat has played in 154 during his tenure, but he missed Game 6 of the 2005 Eastern Conference finals and Game 1 of the 2013 first round. Spoelstra has coached 98 of his games, Pat Riley 27, Stan Van Gundy the first 27. He has played with two current members of the Heat in postseasons prior — Udonis Haslem in all, Bosh in four and newly reacquired Dorell Wright in two. But he has never played with any member of the current Heat rotation.

That’s among the reasons this time feels “different.”

Another?

“Last time I was in the playoffs, it was [NBA] Finals or nothing,” Wade said.

The Heat got that far, before losing to the Spurs in five games. Miami fell short of the postseason last season, and “even though we only missed a year, I feel like I haven’t been in it a while.”

Wade has said that, in retrospect, missing the last postseason was for the best because he knew that squad had no shot to contend, and it was better to have a longer offseason to get his body right. He said he never felt as gloomy about this season’s team, not even after Bosh was lost at least for the rest of the regular season with another blood clot.

“I knew our team was good enough this year,” he said.

Good enough that he doesn’t feel the need to carry it even though “I’m one of the go-to guys on this team when needed, one of the closers.” He doesn’t feel the burden he did in 2009 or 2010, when he thought: “OK, I have to average 30 for us to win.”

“That burden is not on me,” Wade said. “So I’m not going to carry it in there. I’m going to carry in there, knowing each game is going to be different, some nights I’m going to have to do a little bit more, and some nights my teammates are going to be going and I can do a little less.”

But whatever he does, he knows it’s what will matter this season.

How many of his own professional memories are of the postseason?

“The majority,” he said. “I mean, besides my rookie year, where I was excited to emerge, but then I really emerged in the playoffs. Especially at this point. That’s what I put everything on. I play this game for the postseason. I don’t play this game for regular-season success, because that means nothing at this point in my career. When you’re young, yeah, it’s good to have these numbers and that and that. But what you remember the most, what you’re remembered for the most, is what you do in the postseason.”

BOND GROWS STRONGER

There’s a gleam in Spoelstra’s eyes when he discusses Wade these days. They’ve had their skirmishes — recall the sideline showdown in 2012 in Indiana — but now there’s an openly expressed appreciation that seems appropriate after 13 years of such a close connection. Spoelstra can’t stop talking about Wade’s “three-to-one” ratio of off-court work to on-court time, and how “he’s worked as hard as he’s ever worked to fight for that fountain of youth. As the years have gone on, you start to get it, how driven he is.”

But he doesn’t just talk about Wade.

He talks to Wade more.

“We’ve always communicated,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve really enjoyed our working relationship and our personal friendship as it’s developed, through good times and bad times. But this year we’ve probably communicated more than we ever have.”

It has often taken the form of texts, maybe about basketball, maybe absolutely anything else.

“I really care about Dwyane,” Spoelstra said. “When you work with somebody that long, you get to see somebody grow, from a young man as a professional, and then as a father. There’s been so much time, he’s seen me grow as a professional, and I’ve seen him grow in all those areas. And it’s just kind of fun. And this year, I’ve just tried to enjoy the relationship, enjoy this journey together, to be pushing and driving in the same direction in a way that’s not quite as player-coach.”

It’s become more essential in the absence of Bosh, who has become Spoelstra’s first text in times of trouble.

“I’m definitely trying to use [Wade’s] voice more, because he’s as much a caretaker of this culture as I am, and I feel such a responsibility for this culture,” Spoelstra said. “But Dwyane now feels the same way.”

He does.

“One hundred percent,” Wade said. “One hundred percent I do. When guys come in this locker room, they look at me. It is what it is. They look at a lot of things that I do. They listen to what I say. They watch my body language, how I talk to Coach. Everything.”

He said, as a younger player, he didn’t get that.

“But now as an older veteran, you understand how much of a caretaker you are, of growing this organization, year after year, when you’re here,” Wade said. “Guys walk in the gym, you walk around, you see all these banners up here. It’s impressive. And I’ve been part of every last one of them. So there’s a responsibility that comes with that. Not just with my play, but with my leadership.”

So there should be no confusion. When the clock counts down in the games that truly count, Wade’s coach will put the ball, and the Heat’s hopes, right back in his hands, with fingers already fitted for three rings. Why would he do anything else?

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