In a moment of self-congratulation Monday, Dwyane Wade declared that "it could've been easy for me to shut it down."
Easy? Even when the doctors OK'd rehab to return to this basketball season? Sorry, but Wade's stature as one of the sport's superstars demanded nothing less than the harshest road to glory. Whatever the pain, the price, it comes with the NBA Finals MVP, the endless endorsements and the burden of beating the clock on Shaquille O'Neal's declining dominance.
"This is what you do when you're a defending champion," Pat Riley said.
So grateful that Wade has decided to postpone surgery on his dislocated left shoulder until after trying to come back this season, Riley, the Heat emperor, spit out some of his most clownish hyperbole, declaring that Wade is "a soldier."
Yes, it's nice and all that the fleeting, flickering chance at another NBA Finals run won't necessitate Riley forsaking the coaching of the final two months of a lost title defense for, say, volunteering for jury duty. Just understand, Riles: Wade isn't returning to the torn streets of Baghdad but the manicured shores of Biscayne Bay.
Forgive Riley, because the mere possibility of Wade returning should be the inspiration the Heat need to fight to the finish. As Riley said, it gives the Heat "hope" something that vaporized after Wade slammed into Houston's Shane Battier on Feb. 21 and screamed.
Yet as long as the Heat have Wade, they have a shot. Just take a look around the East, and that's the inevitable conclusion. The Pacers, losers of five straight, are floundering, and backed into a sixth-seed tie with the Heat. The Nets, Knicks and Magic are sub-.500 frauds staging a pillow fight for an undeserving eighth seed.
In this mess of an Eastern Conference, where Shaq just pounded the Pistons for 31 points and 15 rebounds, the Heat understand that even the return of a diminished Wade can throw a scare into teams. Across the past two years, Shaq has been able to deliver these moments but unable to sustain them.
"Shaq seems to be asserting himself," one Eastern Conference scout said, "but who knows for how long? And the East is so bad, Riley can make these guys believe. He's such a motivator. Riley won't win any points for creativity, but he's just throwing the ball into the monster and letting him create."
Shaq can hold it together for Wade, the way Wade did for him for much of the regular season. Ultimately, they still need each other come springtime. So there is the possibility that Wade can rehab that left shoulder and get back for the playoffs in late April. There's a chance he'll never get back. Either way, he's going to need surgery and four to six months of recovery time. This eliminates him as a possibility to play for Team USA at Olympic qualifying in Las Vegas this summer, leaving Kobe Bryant to step into his scoring shoes.
Without Wade, the U.S. can make it to Beijing. Without him, though, the Heat can't get out of the first round of the playoffs. There's something else, too: Once Wade called out Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki as a suspect leader, he left himself vulnerable to examination. The title gives him some space to talk, yes, but Wade would've had some explaining to do had he, in his words, "shut it down." They'll check on his shoulder in two or three weeks and see if he's on course for a return.
If Wade does return, he'll have trouble trying to be the daring, undaunted "Flash." His breathless drives and fearless leaps to the rim would leave him vulnerable to dislocating the shoulder again. Riley will take his chances. "He has a tremendous amount of skill and awareness and smarts," Riley said. "Whatever adjustment would have to be made, I think he would make the adjustment and still be pretty effective."
Riley insists that he didn't influence Wade's choice, but no one has to guess where he stood on the issue. Running out of time, out of Shaq, you heard Riles. This is what you do when you're a defending champion. The doctors gave Wade a little hope, and now he turns it over to the Heat. "These are his guys," Riley said, and that's the burden that goes beyond the endorsements and commercials and MVP trophies. His guys, his team and, yes, Dwyane Wade's championship to defend until the pain brings him to his knees.