If you listened closely, you could hear the early postgame grumbling following the Boston Celtics' 85-82 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon, the talk starting to focus on LeBron James(notes) missing the first of two free throws with 12.5 seconds left and the Heat down two points. If he'd hit both, the Heat would have drawn even, putting pressure on a short-handed Celtics squad to generate a bucket to ice a Heat team that had overcome a third-quarter Boston blitz and was closing strong. But instead, James got only one of two, and Boston held on.
The free-throw story fits with a narrative that's become popular among some writers — for all the God-given talent, the jaw-dropping highlights, the MVPs and the endorsements, they say, the King starts sputtering when the money's on the table. But while "LeBron chokes!" might draw eyeballs, make for vitriolic sports-talk chatter or even sometimes be right, the Heat didn't lose solely because James missed a free throw.
If you're determined to isolate one reason for Miami falling short, though, you could do a lot worse than starting with Dwyane Wade(notes). Because as Chris Joseph of the Miami New Times wrote, he was much more of a problem than a solution yesterday:
The Heat brought the game to within three points thanks mostly to LeBron's 22 points on 10-for-21 shooting and 24 from Chris Bosh(notes) going bananas with that easy stroke of his. Wade, however, was another story. He was flustered, harassed and mostly ineffective, finishing with just 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting. If Miami is to get past Boston, Wade needs to start getting all Wadey and blow up [posteriors] like he knows how.
The truth of the matter is, Wade's inability to blow up Boston's [posteriors] didn't just crop up out of nowhere on Sunday. He's been awful against the Celtics all year.
The numbers bear out the nightmarish time that Wade has had against Boston:
• In three games against the Celtics this season, Wade has shot 12-for-45 (26.7 percent) from the field, hitting just two of 10 attempts from long range and turning the ball over 18 times, compared to just 13 assists;
• While plus-minus is an admittedly imperfect stat, Wade has posted a -36 total during the three games against the Celtics, far and away the worst mark of any player on either team, and his per-game average of -12 is an utter freefall from his overall +7 average;
• On the season, Wade is producing an estimated 113 points per 100 possessions for Miami, according to Basketball-Reference.com, but in three games against Boston, he's produced an abysmal 67, 51 and 75 points-per-100;
• Overall, Wade has connected at a 50 percent clip within 10 feet of the basket this season, according to Hoopdata.com, but against the Celtics, he's just 7-for-24 (29.2 percent) from that distance;
• Wade's interior woes include a 6-for-17 mark (35.3 percent) on shots identified as layups or dunks in play-by-play data, a whopping 30 points below his 65.1 percent success rate for the year on field goal attempts at the rim.
Of course, it's not necessarily stunning that Wade would turn in some of his worst performances against the Celtics — Doc Rivers' team ranks second in the league in defensive efficiency and third in the league in opponents' Effective Field Goal percentage. While there's not a true lockdown perimeter defender on the Celtics bench, their team and help defense, keyed so well by their active bigs, can neutralize elite wing talents like Wade.
Still, though, as Matt Moore of NBC Sports' ProBasketballTalk noted, Wade "got the same kind of fadeaways he's hit for years, the same kind of floater opportunities, the same kinds of baseline runners he always hit" — he just didn't convert. Moore suggests that the Celtics' persistent on-ball pressure "simply melted [Wade] down," while Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated gave partial credit to the physical play of Boston's interior defenders, who "chip Wade and LeBron James when they go through lane [and] dent Chris Bosh's back with forearms every time he turns his back to the basket."
Whether he's suffering because he's getting beaten up, melted down, worn out, pushed around or something else entirely, Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would do well to spend the next three months coming up with some answer for getting Wade unstuck against that swarming Celtics defense. If the Heat wind up meeting Boston in May, they won't be able to overcome performances like this from one of their two top guns.