INDIANAPOLIS – The hot pink pants had LeBron James walking on the far side of the corridor, a camera lens closing fast and causing the NBA’s Most Valuable Player to distance himself in mock embarrassment. Dwyane Wade had brought South Beach to the heartland, a country club ensemble inspiring a most playful plea out of James.
“Don’t take a picture of me with that,” James declared on the way to a news conference with Wade. “I’m not walking with that.”
And then James stepped back into the middle of the hallway alongside Wade, step for step, and side by side into the Eastern Conference finals again. Only this time, they come in complete synchronicity, a dramatic and devastating elevation of this partnership unfolding to ultimately obliterate the Indiana Pacers. Once the Pacers prodded the Heat – even provoked them – there would come three consecutive 100-mile-per-hour fastballs to close out Indiana in the conference semifinal.
Finally, there was Wade holding his finger into the air on Thursday night to end Game 6 with a 105-93 victory, 41 points dropping out of the Fieldhouse rafters with a dazzling array of floaters and arching jumpers and ferocious finishes at the rim. Miami gets the winner of the Boston-Philadelphia Game 7 on Saturday night, and truth be told, it won’t matter should James and Wade keep playing this kind of basketball.
“I’m not sure who can beat them right now,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.
The challenge won’t come in the East, but it does await in the Western Conference. For Thursday night, it was a two-man game, a two-man show, and it didn’t matter that Chris Bosh was out with an injury, that Udonis Haslem had been suspended. It didn’t matter because Wade had called upon his great talent, his great pride, and erased an embarrassing episode from earlier in the series with Game 5 and 6 performances straight out of the Heat’s 2006 championship run, straight out of the heavens.
“Spectacular,” James marveled later. “Beginning to end.”
Wade and James had moments together in the playoffs a season ago – the conference finals against the Chicago Bulls, the vanquishing of the Boston Celtics – but never had circumstances dictated they need to play so well together. Sometimes, it still felt like they were taking turns on the floor. James would go, and Wade would watch. Wade would go, and James would watch. Across the final three victories of this series, they played seamlessly together, the ball finding them with defenders collapsing everywhere. This was a purely poetic performance, basketball played on a plane these Pacers were too young to match.
“In the regular season, we’ve had some good games,” Wade said. “But I don’t know if we’ve ever had three in a row like that in the playoffs.”
No. Never three playoff games where James had averaged 33 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and Wade 33 points and seven rebounds. Beyond the scoring, there was defense. They disrupted everything the Pacers wanted to do, reduced them in Game 6 to bumbling turnovers and mistakes. Indiana lost its composure, but so much of that blames goes to James and Wade and the way they inflict pressure on people. They come like a force of nature, and they make you respond, react, and often leave you full of regret.
“This is how we envisioned it,” Wade said.
James has long been automatic for these playoff performances, but Wade had inspired the uncertainty, the doubts. Perhaps, he had lost something. Perhaps, it had become harder for him to muster such magnificent play. For him, there was a moment of truth in this series. He had collapsed in Game 3: His game had fallen apart, his temper, his loss of composure, had humiliated his good name. Whatever happened with the Heat, Wade could always fall back on that ring, that ’06 championship, and the influential voices in South Florida asked a legitimate question: How long do you get to live off that before you’re ever held accountable again?
The Pacers did Wade a favor. They challenged him with big bodies, hard hats and a test of his resolve. Before the playoffs, Wade made the strategic decision to reveal he had told James this season that the Heat belonged to him now, that he was the best player, that he was the leader and he ought to carry himself accordingly. Wade insisted it was a great relief to James, but deep down, perhaps it was a bigger relief for Wade.
In some ways, Wade’s disclosure pushed the public pressure for the Heat’s title pursuits even more firmly onto James. Truth be told, what was Wade losing here? What was he conceding? In essence, nothing. From the moment James signed, the Heat became his team and Miami became his town. He’s no sidekick and never will be.
Yet, James does understand the delicate balance of court chemistry, and he clearly embraced the part of the facilitator for Wade in the final six quarters of this series. James will forever do the most for these Heat – he'll be the reason they ultimately win a championship – but he desperately needed to restore Wade’s stature, his standing, his confidence. James gave Wade the ball where he needed it to score, where he needed it to be Dwyane Wade again.
“This series brought out the best in both of them,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They knew they had to play an extremely high level for us to have a chance. They knew.”
And when this series finally ended, James marched down the Fieldhouse corridor with Wade. The MVP’s eyes wouldn’t come off those hot pink pants. “I’ve already been in too many blogs,” James finally said. Yes, Wade has tried to bring James someplace new. First Miami, and maybe next a championship. That’s the picture LeBron James always wanted with Dwyane Wade, the partnership’s portrait for the ages.
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