MIAMI – With 4:41 left in the first quarter, Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade stepped up from the bench and entered Sunday's game against the San Antonio Spurs. It was a simple act, but also an unusual one.
For the first time in more than six years – a streak of 483 consecutive games that dated to Jan. 6, 2008 – Wade came off the bench for the Heat. He had missed the previous four games to rest his knees. As Miami chases a third straight NBA championship, Wade's health is the biggest question hanging over the team.
"The reality of it is you got to wait and see," Wade said after scoring eight points in 23 minutes during a 113-101 victory over the Spurs. "I'm not going to make a bigger deal of it than it is and I'm going to act like it's nothing. …People could think what they want. I'm continuing to work to make sure I'm at my best when I can be."
Wade's knee problems go back to his college days at Marquette. He had surgery to remove a meniscus from his left knee in 2002 after his sophomore season. He has said he regretted having that surgery because he thinks it has contributed to his chronic knee issues. Wade underwent shock-wave knee treatment last July, which is a procedure that typically needs six months to fully take.
Wade has missed 12 games this season because of concerns about his knees. He's averaging 18.5 points this season, the first time he's averaged fewer than 20 since his rookie season. But there have been flashes of his old self – on Dec. 18, he scored 32 points against the Indiana Pacers.
How Wade is used for the remainder of the season likely will continue to depend on how his knees feel.
"Look, I understand that everybody is going to use this as a lightning-rod subject to talk about for the next three days," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Nothing is set in stone the rest of the year. We're going to evaluate everything day to day. We need Dwyane healthy."
Spoelstra said last week he didn't see a reason to panic about Wade's knees. Spoelstra added that returning to Miami after a six-game trip allowed Wade to resume his normal knee maintenance routine at the team's training facility.
Wade opted to return to action Sunday after a nine-day layoff. He told Spoelstra he preferred to come off the bench after participating in just one practice before Sunday's rematch of last season's NBA Finals.
"This team has been in a rhythm," Wade said. "I didn't want to mess that up."
Wade missed five of his eight shots, and had five assists, three rebounds and two turnovers. He missed his first three shots (all in the paint), didn't have his usual lift on his first basket (a lay-in), didn't dunk and passed the ball on several drives to the basket. Wade was uncertain if he would still come off the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.
"They're feeling all right, right now," Wade said of his knees. "I did what I wanted to do from the sense of being aggressive and making plays for my teammates.
"I just wanted to go out there trying to get my rhythm back a little bit. Hopefully, heading into Wednesday, I'm feeling even better."
In the meantime, Chris Bosh has taken over the role as second scoring option behind LeBron James. Bosh was impressive against the Spurs, scoring 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting while making all five free throws and dishing three assists. He has averaged 20.4 points and 1.7 3-pointers made the past seven games.
"It makes things a little bit easier as Dwyane has been struggling with his injuries and everything," Bosh said. "It's allowed me to kind of get into a groove. My mentality coming in is to be aggressive. Sometimes, some shots that I shoot if he's into a good rhythm and playing, I probably wouldn't take them."
Wade, who had 24 points the past seven games, described Bosh's recent play as "phenomenal."
"He's in an unbelievable rhythm," Wade said.
The weakened Eastern Conference also has afforded the Heat to be cautious with Wade.
The Heat could have to relinquish the East's top playoff seed to Indiana if they continue to rest Wade. Miami has no reason to be stressed about losing the second seed; the third-place Atlanta Hawks are eight games behind. The Heat's focus is figuring out what a healthy Wade can give in the playoffs.
"I'm not having to force things," Wade said. "I live under my own umbrella. I do things that make me happy and what's best for my team. I don't worry about forcing things right now. I got a bigger picture in mind and that's all I'm focused on right now."
Wade averaged a career-low 15.9 points per game in the playoffs last season as the Heat won a second-straight NBA title. Other than his rookie year, the 2006 Finals MVP never averaged less than 23 points in the postseason. With the bigger and more experienced Pacers playing like title contenders, Miami could need Wade to average 20 points or more to just return to the Finals.
Wade his tired of the constant questions about his knees. He also knows they likely won't end anytime soon.