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Fifteen minutes before the rest of his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates lumbered into Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for morning shootaround, wiping sleep from their eyes and wearing slippers, Dwyane Wade was on the floor, building up a lather and running individual shooting drills with assistant coach Phil Handy. This is a new routine for Wade, a future Hall of Famer learning to adjust to a veteran team that rarely practices and with a role — and position as backup point guard — unfamiliar to anything he might have encountered in his previous 14 years in the league.
Wade wants this reunion with his good friend LeBron James to work, having spent the years following their split in Miami as an observer, not participant, for meaningful basketball games. The Cavaliers have thrown together a confusing gumbo as they carry on with life and attempt to make a fourth straight — but first post-Kyrie Irving — run to the NBA Finals. And Wade has taken upon a challenge to re-define himself in a way that few with his resumé would willingly accept — even if that means showing up on the first shootaround bus with seldom-used players like John Holland and Cedi Osman, and getting in extra work as if he’s trying to establish himself in the league all over again.
“The last time I came off the bench, I think I was in sixth grade, playing on an eighth-grade team,” Wade told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “I’m just trying to stay as sharp as possible. I’m used to starting. I’m used to getting as much rest as possible. Now, it’s a little different. Got to change it up a little bit. I’m not really coming in worrying about my statistics or numbers. Fifteen years in the league, I don’t care about that no more. I’ve done all that. For me, it’s about being a part of something special.”
If the past seven years have proven anything, it’s that playing with James can be equal parts stressful and rewarding. The scrutiny over every failure, cryptic subtweet or perceived chemistry problem is endless and borderline maddening if you let it marinate. But the exposure and opportunity to play for something special often makes the experience worthwhile. This season is no different, and perhaps more unnerving, as the Cavaliers try to piece together a team of guys trying to stay fresh after three straight deep postseason runs, with newcomers eager to win on the grandest scale with the greatest player of this generation approaching another highly anticipated free agency.
“I think this team, especially guys that [have] been here and guys that just got here are starting to understand that whenever LeBron is a part of the team, [there’s] going to be something said,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “He’s been the face of the NBA for a while now, so I think everybody understands that. That makes it exciting. That makes it fun to be on this team. You go on the road, it’s a show. You’re part of the show, win, lose or draw. All eyes are always on you. … It’s not like being on a team where no one really cares, or no one is watching. It’s a different mentality.”
The season hasn’t even reached December, but the Cavaliers have already had to respond to concerns over their possible vulnerabilities in a more competitive than usual Eastern Conference. They are getting older. They played their first dozen or so games as if they were allergic to playing defense. Derrick Rose, an odd-looking fit from the start, has already gotten hurt and left the team to contemplate whether he wants to retire. Tristan Thompson went down with a calf injury. Wade moved to the bench to run the second unit after coach Tyronn Lue recognized that surrounding James with non-shooters was the equivalent of wearing noise-canceling headphones at the symphony. And the panic surrounding the team was magnified by Irving flourishing as a leading man in Boston, Isaiah Thomas still slowly recovering from a bum hip, and the coveted Brooklyn pick it received in that trade looking less like it will be high in the lottery.
“Never watch what they say. Never read the papers. I don’t have social media, so that doesn’t bother me,” Lue told Yahoo Sports about the early doubts regarding his team. “I knew we had a lot of talent. But if any team loses your starter and backup point guard, you’re going to struggle. We had to figure out how we wanted to play. And we did.”
James has been the remedy for situations that could derail most teams. He is defying what’s expected of a player in his 15th season and re-inventing himself in a more dramatic and effective manner than Wade. What James is accomplishing at age 32 is nothing short of brilliant, considering he’s shooting career highs from the field and 3-point range. He’s heard Kevin Durant claim that the torch for the game’s best player was passed in the NBA Finals, and James is responding with a campaign that suggests he kept a blowtorch in his back pocket.
Always adding new elements to his game, James has even gotten so testy that he was ejected for the first time in 1,802 career regular-season games, arguing over a non-call during a win over Miami on Tuesday night. His elevated play at a time when a visible decline usually becomes obvious led one reporter to ask James if he thinks about one day averaging 20 points a game at age 40, like Michael Jordan. “I don’t think that [expletive] far in the future. I might be 33 in the December, but that’s too far,” James replied. “Sheesh.”
Teams in the East had their chance to create some separation while the Cavaliers were searching for non-LeBron answers, tripping over themselves and waiting to flip a switch on their season. But Cleveland, which has won nine straight, is coming, and James won’t be deterred from his pursuit of eight straight conference crowns. “I think things have slowed down for us all,” James said. “I’m a big believer, and I know and I always preach it takes time. No matter how good you’ve been in the past or how good the players are or whatever, it takes time for things to get in place.”
James is quick to point out that the Cavaliers still aren’t whole, despite their climb in the standings. Thompson should soon be back in uniform, and Thomas is expected to make his debut with the team near the end of the calendar year. Wade understands how hard it is to make four consecutive Finals trips, a draining grind that the Miami Heat already accomplished and the Cavaliers are attempting to duplicate with James as the common link. The Heat had moments in the final year of their run when the chase grew stale. But Kevin Love believes an injection of energy, in the form of Wade, Thomas, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon, has taken away the monotony.
“The physical toll in your fourth year, we don’t feel like it’s weighing on us, because we have so much fresh blood and so many guys who are hungry for where we’ve been,” Love told Yahoo Sports. “LeBron’s been to seven straight now. He’s never lacking or striving for something greater than himself.”
Having witnessed both sides as a competitor and teammate, Wade knows that the latter requires a need to be prepared for a little extra. Playing with James is an experience like none other, with the positive trade-offs far exceeding the negatives. Wade pulled out all of the stops to persuade James to join him in Miami. Despite their friendship and past success together, James still needed to make a pitch after Wade negotiated a buyout from Chicago.
“He wanted me here. I know that for a fact. I don’t know if the feeling was mutual all the way around. But I knew that somebody that I’ve won championships with before, someone I’m very good friends with, someone who I respected and loved to be with, loved to play with, wanted me to be here. I definitely took every team and every situation into consideration. Ultimately, I felt this would be the best for me,” Wade told Yahoo Sports.
About an hour before playing the 76ers, Wade was stretching in a cramped space between the visiting locker room and the coach’s quarters. Lue noticed that Wade had been on the floor for a considerable amount of time, ribbed Wade, then stumbled into the locker room, laughing. “LeBron!” Lue said. “He’s been stretching for an hour and a half!”
James, taking a break from rapping to a Migos song playing in the locker room, shrugged and responded, “He old,” which ignited more laughter. Wade walked in shortly thereafter, shaking his head and pointing his thumb in the direction of Lue. Though he’s older, he’s not done and certainly not dumb enough to let ego or pride stand in the way of winning. Especially the winning that comes from being on the same side as James.
“As you keep going on and on and on, you’ve got to keep finding new challenges for yourself,” Wade said. “You see if you still want to play this game, how much you love this game, you’ve got to have challenges along the way. For me, [playing with James] was definitely something I wanted to be a part of. You can’t play this game forever, no one knows exactly how long you’ve got to play, so while you have an opportunity to do it, you’ve got to do it the way you want to do it.”
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