Welcome back, Dwyane Wade.
Your timing was impeccable.
The chatter entering Wednesday night’s playoff game here centered on the thick elastic wrap on Wade’s right knee and the pain barking underneath it. Could Dwyane be his old, spectacular self? Or was he simply too hurt?
The answers were inconclusive much of the night, but emphatic when they absolutely mattered.
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“I had a good couple minutes,” he said, smiling.
Wade did, and that is largely why Miami beat the Chicago Bulls 94-91 Wednesday night to win this second-round series 4 games to 1 and jack the downtown bayside arena into fiesta mode. The result sent depleted Chicago into its offseason after a noble effort, and sends Miami on to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals after a dramatically earned comeback.
The Heat is now halfway to a repeat championship.
It’s the easy half that’s in the books now.
It’s what remains that will find the vintage Wade — healthy or playing like it — in ever greater demand.
There is a country music lyric: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good, once, as I ever was.”
That was D-Wade, late Wednesday. That might be Wade all this postseason, budgeting his energy and physical strength, waiting to strike, striking in bursts.
Wednesday he would finish with 18 points, but the six of those he delivered last recalled a Wade unencumbered by knee-wraps or doubts.
At a time when the game was stretched taut and teetering, Wade made a runner off the glass. Then he made another one of those after a reverse dribble into the paint left Bulls defender Rip Hamilton frozen. Then Wade climbed air for a slam-dunk off a missed shot for a late seven-point lead that held up.
“It’s challenging for him,” admitted LeBron James. “He wants to do more, and we’d like him to do more, but just his presence on the court helps us.”
Wade had left the game briefly in the second half to have his right knee re-taped, “because I knew I was going back into a grind,” he said. “And I knew [Chicago] wouldn’t be prepared for me to attack. I was kind of forgotten at that time.”
“Forgotten by everyone but us,” James added.
Wade had averaged only 12.3 points this postseason before Wednesday, and was questionable to even play in this closeout game. The previous game he’d scored a mere six points.
On Tuesday he’d taken what he called “a mental day for myself” to “uncloud your mind.” He spoke with his old college coach, Tom Crean. He resolved that he’d been here before, and conquered all the doubters before, too.
“That’s my life,” Wade said. “I’m not supposed to be sitting up here at the podium right now.”
Wade is sensitive to the notion he has become somewhat injury-prone, yet pointed out after Wednesday’s win that his career scoring totals might be up there with LeBron’s if he had enjoyed better health. It was a curious, unsolicited remark. It spoke to the ongoing sacrifice Wade makes to defer to James in the name of the greater good. “I hope at the end of my career my game gets the respect it deserves,” Wade said.
Before the game a more jocular Wade joked about the situation with his knee, the feeling of it.
“It’s like the candy bar Almond Joy,” he had described it. “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”
His late heroics, sweet as candy, left the packed arena going nuts.
“It is what it is, and will be for the whole playoffs,” Wade said of the bruised knee. “Same thing I’ve been dealing with. No better, no worse. I’m not 100 percent healthy, just trying to make plays for my teammates. I know I still draw attention. When I get better, if I get better, I’ll do more.”
He did enough Wednesday — and Miami needed him to — and that helped make sure the Heat avoided what would have been the huge embarrassment of blowing an early 18-point lead and losing.
The Heat led by 10-0 early, didn’t miss a single shot until the opening quarter was half done, and later led by 22-4. The party in the arena had begun; the Bulls were playing the piñata. It looked like Chicago had all but conceded. You half expected them to change into street clothes and start heading for the airport.
They didn’t quit, though. Give them that.
Later it was Miami’s turn for that resolve in overcoming an 11-point deficit. All at once a Chicago team missing three key injured players had seized control, and the champs with the best home record in basketball were left scrambling.
The Heat trailed by eight entering the final quarter.
“We have to embrace the grind,” coach Erik Spoelstra said then.
LeBron would lead Miami with 23 points though he shot only 5-for-14. Then it was Wade’s 18 and Chris Bosh’s 12 leading the Heat scorers.
It was a big week in various ways for the team’s Big 3. James was No. 2 on Sports Illustrated’s new “Fortunate 50” list of top-paid U.S. athletes for 2013, at $56.5 million, trailing only boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.
“Has nothing to do with basketball,” he’d said before the game, a bit annoyed by the mention of it.
Interestingly, $39 million of that income is endorsement money — more than any other American athlete. (So much for America turning its back on LeBron after his infamous 2010 handling of “The Decision”).
Bosh also made news off the court this week as ESPN premiered a feature on him in its E:60 documentary series, calling the cerebral Bosh “the NBA’s most interesting man.”
Wade’s off-court news revolved around how much that bruised knee would allow him to do ON the court. The answer came late Wednesday, just in time, and the answer was this: Enough.
Just enough, but plenty.