Four full days off may not seem like a ton of time to the San Antonio Spurs, who will have to wait nine days between the Western Conference finals and NBA Finals, or even the Dwyane Wade we knew and admired from earlier this spring – the one who enjoyed a combined 16 days off following series victories over Milwaukee and Chicago. For the most recent version of Dwyane Wade, one we still know quite well and admire just as much, four days could mean all the difference in the world. The ailing Heat star could give his worn out knees an extended break between now and the June 6 tip-off of the NBA Finals with a much-needed return to form on Saturday night.
All he has to do is help his Heat down the Indiana Pacers in Game 6. Much easier wished than accomplished, especially with Wade once again battling the expected results of his years of all-out play, paired with his routine trips to the second, third and fourth round of the playoffs. For the first time all season, the Indiana Pacers will be playing for their basketball lives in Game 6, while working at home in a building in which they’ve won seven of eight playoff contests. The Heat will be working without Chris Andersen. The Pacers will be working with a sense of panic and urgency. Dwyane Wade will be working with one healthy knee.
It won’t be easy, Miami fans, when you do deign to tune in late in the first quarter.
Wade likely never considered himself much of a potential X-factor when he helped cobble together a super group featuring LeBron James and Chris Bosh back in July 2010. That status was supposed to fall on versatile swingman Mike Miller, who has played just 51 minutes all postseason, or Mario Chalmers, who is struggling through a shoulder injury of his own. At worst, Wade was supposed to be the late-game go-to guy when LeBron inevitably shriveled down the stretch of close contests, and not some marginalized helper.
Instead, James has developed into one of the fiercest clutch competitors the game has ever seen, while Wade has seen his scoring average drop to 13.9 points per game during the playoffs, only topping 20 points once in the postseason in a 21-point performance during a blowout win over Milwaukee. Things have gotten so bad that James referenced going “back to my Cleveland days” after his stellar performance in Game 5, less a shot at his co-workers and more of a reality-based statement about his current role. LeBron isn’t having to look off Boobie Gibson in the corner, and the ancient Ben Wallace isn’t stuck setting screens for him, but he is having to shoulder more of a burden than expected.
Saturday’s Game 6 will be just the 17th game Wade has played in over two months, a relative pittance compared to the usual NBA schedule. With Indiana’s league-best defense in constant flux as it attempts to mind LeBron while keeping tabs on the Heat’s floor-spacing outside shooters, is it possible that Wade can put together yet another throwback game? To find his sea legs one more time in an attempt to put away the June-worthy Pacers and take in that four-day respite before the Finals start?
Or is this really, really it for him? Maybe this is who Dwyane Wade is now.
At some point, all these injuries have to take their toll. This is a guy who missed a total of 62 games between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons because of leg injuries, and that was five years ago. He’s missed 30 regular-season games over the last two years, and though Dwyane turned only 31 in January, he’s a pretty well-worn 31 years of age. Wade’s played nearly 4,900 career postseason minutes, with three demanding international basketball stints pitched in some summers. All while working with a style of game that relied mainly on slashing and earning trips to the free-throw line.
Miami doesn’t need him to rack up 16 free throws on Saturday, as was his average seven years ago during the 2006 NBA Finals. The team just needs a little more. For him to use that knowledge and touch to work around that lack of lift on his way toward more looping floaters, or flat-footed jumpers, or bank shots off quick post-ups. The Heat need him to make Indiana regret it when they place their second-best wing defender on D-Wade, instead of King James. They need him to make Lance Stephenson think twice before roaming to help on James or Bosh, and they need him to force the Pacers into fretting about the broken plays their defense creates, because that loose ball and dwindling shot clock can create fantastic scoring opportunities for Wade if his game is on point.
So when Wade leaves the bench late in the third quarter to head to the locker room to “use the bathroom” (read: “move his bruised and dislodged kneecap back into place, manually”), understand what he’s gearing up for. He wants to shake the Cleveland cobwebs out of LeBron’s head, with LeBron’s next turn as a free agent just 13 months away. He wants to shut up Lance Stephenson, once and for all. He wants to hit 24 points, when his legs want him to stop at 14. He wants to leave Indiana a winner.
And he wants a few days off. Ten seasons into his career, Lord knows he’s earned it.