OKLAHOMA CITY – Dwyane Wade said he's all about winning, which is probably better than the alternative. He said he just missed shots. He said he'll continue to be aggressive. He said this was a feel-out game, and that his Miami Heat will look at film, make some adjustments and come back better prepared.
Wade was the picture of cool late Tuesday. The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Heat 105-94 in the opener of the NBA Finals, with the Heat unraveling in the second half after losing track of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Wade saw no reason to panic. He allowed himself a small laugh as he climbed the stage for his postgame news conference.
"I'm not worried about it," Wade said, and that, too, is probably better than the alternative.
For if Wade and his Heat stared at the cold truth from their loss, they'd ask themselves the same question the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs all eventually asked themselves this postseason: Are they overmatched against these young, relentless Thunder?
One game does not win or lose a championship. LeBron James can still change this series. He delivered 30 points in the opener and he's capable of delivering more as the Finals continue. But he can't win this alone and he can't do it with Wade playing as he did Tuesday. Wade scored 19 points with eight assists, but he missed 11 of his 15 shots in the first three quarters. All those crisp passes that found the Heat's shooters in rhythm in the first half disappeared in the final two quarters as Wade dribbled away possessions.
Afterward, Wade said what all great scorers say on a bad night: He just missed shots he normally makes. "Obviously," he said, "we just need to make more."
The Heat can only hope the solution is that simple. As much as these Finals have been cast as a referendum on James' championship mettle, they're also a measure of where Wade now stands in the league's hierarchy. Late-season injuries have worn on him, even if he won't admit as much. He needed to have his left knee drained midway through Miami's second-round series against the Indiana Pacers, and he lacked his old burst against the Thunder. He's still capable of taking over a game. He's also looked ordinary on just as many other nights.
"Some nights I have big nights scoring and some nights I don’t," Wade said. "That's been the season. That's just the way that it's designed for me."
The season has been one of adjustment for Wade. He's given James the reins to the Heat, let him dictate the terms and pace of their offense. These Heat now belong to James, and Wade has admitted as much. He's had to pick his spots more than ever and it isn't always easy. But has his deference been merely for the growth of James and the betterment of the team? Or was this a move made out of necessity?
Wade will scoff at that. Durant and Westbrook make everyone look older and slower. But as much as the Heat gamely fought back against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, these Thunder aren't the Celtics. They're not just faster. They're deeper, more versatile and they shoot better. More than any other team in these playoffs, they've exposed their opponents' most telling flaws.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went just six deep with his rotation. As Durant and Westbrook blitzed down the court, as the Thunder attacked with younger, faster, fresher bodies, Spoelstra looked down his bench and wondered the same thing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich began to wonder midway through the Western Conference finals: How can I counter this? Who can I trust?
Popovich called his roster the deepest in his 16 seasons as coach. By the end of series, he was using seven players.
"We're going to have to have more guys in there to give me and D-Wade a rest," James said.
James Jones wasn't available because of a migraine, and Spoelstra indicated he will lengthen his rotation for Game 2. In the end, though, his biggest adjustment will likely be the same one Popovich made: Just as the Spurs pushed Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup, the Heat will likely do the same with Chris Bosh. To match up with the Thunder, you need your best players on the court together. Even then it might not be enough with the way Durant has played.
The Mavs, the Lakers, the Spurs all pride themselves on their defense, but they couldn't slow the Thunder. The Heat also will be taxed. To beat Durant and Westbrook, they'll need to score. Bosh missed seven of his 11 shots and Wade wasn't much more effective.
"I'm a winner, so I'm just doing whatever I can to help my team win," Wade said. "One night I'm going to have a big night scoring, some nights I'm going to have a big night doing other things. I'm just doing whatever it takes to win the ballgame, not necessarily sitting up here worrying about scoring 30 points. I know that's going to make you guys feel better."
A little bitterness had slipped into Wade's voice. He's still a proud warrior. He'll come back sharper, he said, better prepared. He's not ready to concede defeat, in this series or with his legacy. The alternative?
It's too painful to accept.
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