The Miami Heat has been called LeBron James’ team and Pat Riley’s grand creation. The Heat has been called a coalition of mercenaries, a “Hollywood as hell” superstar trio in a city not renowned for its subtlety.
But from the beginning, the Heat was Dwyane Wade’s brainchild. He conceived the Big 3, coaxed it into existence and steered it through doubt and derision. When James shrunk and Chris Bosh fainted, Wade was steadfast.
In the first NBA Finals Game 7 of his career, Wade saved the best for the last game of an endless season. Wade survived a rocky playoffs performance to emerge with proof that he is not flotsam after all.
His vision of a dynasty in Miami became clearer with another conquering triumph Thursday, as the Heat outlasted the San Antonio Spurs 95-88. That’s two championships in a row in three straight Finals appearances for the Big 3 of Wade, James and Bosh.
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But it was also affirmation of Wade’s enduring greatness. He was here for the Heat’s first title in 2006 when he led a different cast and he was a different player.
On a sticky summer night of raw nerves and high drama, the new old Wade made sure his team would not be humbled on its home court. He was not gaudily magnificent in this rare spectacle of a Game 7. He left that to James, who scored 37 points, and Shane Battier, who rediscovered his three-point stroke and nailed six of them.
Wade was, instead, intensely opportunistic. He was the glue. Instead of soaring, he darted. Instead of overpowering, he nudged. He finished with 23 points on 11-for-21 shooting, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
When Manu Ginobili missed a three-pointer with 19 seconds left, Wade snagged the rebound and denied the Spurs their last chance to overcome a six-point deficit. He was fouled by Green. Heat players knew that the golden trophy was theirs, and they paused for quick hugs before Wade went to the free throw line and scored the final point of the Heat’s eight-month, 106-game marathon.
Relief, then delirium.
“This is the sweetest one by far because of everything we’ve been through, everything I’ve been through,” Wade said, joking that he’d like to be addressed as Three, not Dwyane. He sat outside the locker room for a few quiet moments before entering into champagne bedlam. “We go through life so fast and we never really get to enjoy moments. The championships that I’ve won seemed like they went past me so fast. I just wanted to soak it in, being a kid from Robbins, Ill., and now having three championships.”
It was a cathartic victory for the Heat, the team most of the nation loves to hate. It was a poignant loss for the Spurs, whose aging Big 3 was attempting to win its fourth title, and a fifth for Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich, who had not previously lost in the Finals.
The Heat slammed the Spurs’ window shut while sustaining a dream of making their own version of NBA history. Wade, 31, played like he intends to see it fulfilled.
As the fourth quarter opened with the Heat clinging to a 72-71 lead, Wade yanked down a rebound, then blocked Green’s shot from behind.
He skidded on the floor to save a loose ball and came up limping on his creaky knees, but was able to give the Heat six points of breathing room with a clever 18-foot hesitation jumper.
This was Wade relying not on grace but guts. He made a ferocious succession of rebounds to keep a possession alive. He deflected passes. He sank midrange jumpers that caught the Spurs in no-man’s land.
It was fitting, it was right, it was perfect. Wade is a Heat original, going on 10 years. He is not an import. He was here for the Alonzo Mourning incarnation and for the Shaquille O’Neal era. He was here when Michael Beasley was to be the next It player.
As the rosters changed, Wade persevered. He grew up before our eyes, from shy kid to sage leader.
But in 2013, Wade seemed to go the way of his bruised right knee, feeling alternately good and bad, fluid and stiff. He didn’t revert to Wade circa 2006 on Thursday – and not even Wade circa 2012. He couldn’t turn the lane into his own private dance floor as he used to. He caused damage from the fringes. His 15 first-half points buoyed teammates when they needed reassurance that they could beat the relentless Spurs and conclude the seesaw series with two wins in a row.
In the third quarter, Wade cradled a fast-break dish from James for an uncontested dunk. Flash was back in that flashback. But that is not the type of player Wade is anymore, which is why this championship was so crucial to the future of the Heat’s Big 3 – on trial since its seven-game struggle against the Indiana Pacers and judged harshly again in its inability to knock out the Spurs.
The Heat’s stars prefer the roles of pilots pulling out of a death spiral to zooming in for a smooth landing.
In the battle of the Big 3s, inside white-hot AmericanAirlines Arena, immersed in the pressure cooker of Game 7, Wade’s will prevailed.
“They tried to bury Dwyane but he kept pushing open that coffin door,” Battier said. “You really can’t define him by stats. He’s a competitor, a fighter.”
The game pitted two disparate trios. The Spurs have already established their legacy with a dynasty of consistent, classy excellence through the first decade of the 21st century. Their Big 3 came to San Antonio through the draft from France, Argentina and the Virgin Islands.
Miami has an alliance of stars who each gave up their own fiefdoms to create a kingdom and the potential of multiple titles.
It took the strength of those bonds to get to and through Game 7 after a turbulent series of blowouts and millisecond miracles, like Tony Parker’s Harlem Globetrotters dribbling demonstration and game-winning jumper in Game 1 and Ray Allen’s overtime-inducing three-pointer in Game 6.
James was never quite able to take his customary command due to the Spurs’ changing arsenal of defenders and defenses. Even in victory, his main weapon was his jump shot, not his power drives to the basket.
Wade had his ups and downs – and his arsenal of second-guessers. He seemed adrift and passive at times. He scored a low of 10 in the Game 1 loss, recovered with 32 in Game 3 then recorded a meek 17 and 16 in Games 5 and 6. Sporadic stabbing pain in his right knee limited his lift and aggressiveness a year after his balky left knee had a surgical tuneup.
“I talked to my knees, we had a conversation,” he said. “I said, ‘Listen, both of you guys, if y’all can give me one great game, you’ll have a great summer. So I’m going to treat my knees very well, and rest them.”
Written off as washed up, Wade said he’ll be back, maybe not as the flying trapeze artist of his prime, but ready to emulate San Antonio’s example of dominance over the long run.
When it mattered most, Wade was serene and supreme. He showed his teammates the way by finding a way. The NBA championship is staying in Miami because the heart of the Heat was pumping.