DALLAS – Here promises to be the perilous path of chasing a title with Dwyane Wade(notes), undertaking everything with the franchise star most responsible for raising a Miami Heat banner five years ago. Biggest stage in the world, biggest moment of his basketball life, and LeBron James(notes) has clearly come to terms with the fact he’s slowly, surely been reduced to the sidekick in these NBA Finals.
As the final minutes of the Heat’s 88-86 Game 3 victory unfolded on Sunday, Wade had reclaimed complete control of this partnership. James had deferred to Wade’s disposition to dominate these Dallas Mavericks. Wade has that killer scoring DNA of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant(notes), and James will forever make the right play, the pass to a lesser teammate when circumstances dictate. Always more Magic than Michael, and that has a chance to make him one of the two or three greatest all-around players ever.
Nevertheless, Wade watched James play that part in the Eastern Conference finals, but roles have been juxtaposed with Wade recreating the 2006 Finals against the Mavericks all over again.
“I’ve been here before, so just trying to lead,” Wade said. “My guys did a great job of following.”
Wade’s reveling in the notion that he’s no longer playing Robin in these Finals, referring to himself as the captain, as the leader and the star responsible for charting an aggressive path to a Game 3 victory some 24 hours earlier in a Saturday practice.
Perhaps nothing illustrated the dramatic transformations within the dynamic as Wade letting loose with a brief, blasting bark at James late in the fourth for dropping off a pass to Mario Chalmers(notes). Wade wanted James, so reluctant, to take the ball to the rim himself. No one has ever talked to King James like this on the floor, ever challenged him in such public and piercing ways.
Wade had a magnificent 29 points, 11 rebounds and no turnovers for the Heat. These Finals have evolved into a spectacular duel with Wade and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) delivering dagger upon dagger, until Nowitzki finally missed a fade-away to end the game and end one more Mavericks comeback.
Nowitzki is surrounded with aging stars and flawed dependants. He had 34 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, but he still missed that 17-footer at the buzzer. As the Heat has thrust their tremendous defensive resolve upon Nowitzki, he’s still managed to find his points on tough angles, tough shots. He isn’t the frontrunner in these Finals, and that makes things different for him.
Nowitzki is viewed through a different prism because let’s face it: His Hall of Fame teammate is 38 years old; Jason Kidd’s(notes) well past his prime. Dirk didn’t go chasing a ring, he has tried to let it come to him.
This was part of the arrangement, and part of the criticism that’ll come with James winning a title. Wade’s on his way to the MVP in this series, and that’ll feed those who’ll want to diminish James’ choice to fortify his title aspirations with Wade. For some, this is why James will never get considerable due unless he parlays this partnership into multiple titles. He’ll need a fistful to validate the legitimacy of this front-running frolic. It isn’t fair, but it’s a fact.
So, James needs to accept those charges and consider it part of the sacrifice he made to be a champion. Credit can be fleeting, but his first ring will be forever. When James and Wade gathered for a postgame news conference, someone asked King James about "shrinking" in the fourth quarter, about failing to be a superstar when it was needed.
He gritted his teeth and stayed poised, but it cut to the core of his ego. Shrinking? James never publicly snaps, never loses his cool. He was goaded, but showed restraint.
“I think you’re concentrating on one side of the floor,” James sniffed. “All you’re looking at is the stat sheet. Honestly, I’m a two-way player. Since D-Wade had it going … we allow him to handle the ball, bring it on offensively. You should watch the film again and see what I did defensively. You’ll ask me a better question tomorrow.”
He’s right. He did play well defensively, but the nature of the game is to examine closer the two points and two turnovers in the fourth quarter. Still fresh on minds was LeBron’s part in the Heat’s fourth-quarter meltdown of Game 2, and how his reticence conspired to make possible the Mavericks’ improbable comeback.
Wade seemed far more amused and far less offended with the question. Before long, he was listening to James get asked about what it was like to have Wade getting in his face, challenging him with 3½ minutes left in the fourth quarter. Truth be told, Wade loved the line of questioning, loved that everyone noticed that he had reclaimed these Heat in Game 3.
“I was trying to do what leaders do, and what captains do,” Wade said. “Step up and say what you feel …”
James backed Wade, insisting: “At this point, there’s no room to hold anything back. As a competitor, you love when guys challenge you.”
Whatever happens, give Wade and James this: However they feel inside, they always maintain a united front. And remember, Wade has the chops – and the championship pedigree – to call James out on the floor, in the locker room, anywhere he chooses.
Wade had gone after James in the locker room at halftime too, and James went out of his way to disclose that. Wade is flexing his old muscle memory, pushing past the defense to the rim, lifting long, sure jumpers and barking admonishments to James. This is why they’ve moved within two victories of a championship, and why LeBron James has to bite his lip, absorb the misdirected daggers and accept that Wade’s genius on the offensive end could somehow reshape the narrative of a Heat championship season.
James can’t get angry. He can’t get defensive. He wanted to be part of a cornerstone of the most staggering array of talent that free agency ever brought together, and he’ll have to live with the repercussions of the choice. Only his coaches will go back and study the tape of his work on the defensive end, and ultimately James will have to find his most satisfaction, his most comfort, in victory.
Yes, Wade has transformed the most talented player in basketball to something of a championship series understudy. Wade was right: He’s been here before, and his guys did a great job of following. This was true of everyone, especially James. He’s done everything right in these playoffs, and that includes deferring to Wade turning back the Finals clock five years on the Mavericks.
Dwyane Wade has reclaimed control of these Miami Heat, restored himself as the Alpha Dog, and LeBron James has never been closer to a championship ring. And this is why he’ll have to grit his teeth and understand this was always going to be part of the perilous path of chasing a title with a champion who's been there, done that.