PHILADELPHIA — Udonis Haslem had to let Dwyane Wade be, even if they sometimes disagreed. Haslem looked on in shock in 2016 when Wade left behind everything they’d built, everything that built them, for Chicago in a free-agency dispute that was more about respect and pride than money. And he was disappointed when Wade ignored a chance to come back a year later, choosing instead to chase a ring in Cleveland with LeBron James. All along, Haslem — the walking, elbow-throwing definition of a Heat lifer — would listen to Wade complain about what was missing in his familiar but different locations and could only interpret one thing: Wade was missing Miami.
“Yeah, I knew he was. We talked all the time. He missed it,” Haslem told Yahoo Sports. “But if you’re a real friend, you support your friend throughout their situation, whether you agree with them or not. You just stick by, ride it out.”
The reunion that had to be came together in February, when Miami Heat czar Pat Riley swooped in on the opportunity to re-acquire Wade for the low, low price of a future second-round pick. Riley wasn’t under any delusions that the Heat were acquiring anything close to the legend who in his prime won a Finals MVP and three championships, let alone the version of Wade that skipped town. But he was banking on Wade being able to have one of those nights — like Monday night — or maybe a handful of nights, when greatness bubbled over and overflowed; when Wade’s DNA, as he likes to say, could will the Heat to victory.
Wade didn’t turn back the clock or have a vintage performance in leading the Heat to a 113-103 victory over the streaking Philadelphia 76ers to even the series at 1-1. While setting a new Heat record with 28 points off the bench in just 26 minutes, Wade displayed a fully-adjusted old man game that didn’t appear possible given his more reckless, fall-down-seven-times-get-up-eight youth. At age 36, Wade doesn’t have the energy nor the preference for all of that slashing and crashing — though he did hurdle a few rows trying to track down a loose ball in the first half. He beat the 76ers with step-back jumpers and fadeaways, with cunning and killer instinct.
“He’s the best player to ever come through this organization,” Haslem told Yahoo Sports. “We needed him. He’s the guy that capitalizes in those moments. We have a lot of things. We still need another championship guy on the floor with these guys when they come into a hostile environment like this. We’re happy to have him.”
The material for Wade’s orange Hall of Fame jacket has already been set aside, waiting for the tailor to complete the measurements and the stitching whenever he decides that he’s done reminding fans at American Airlines Arena that it’s his house or finished walking into visiting arenas and shushing the crowd. Wade is getting closer to that end every game, which makes every hero turn more remarkable because it could be his last. He didn’t miss a shot until his eighth attempt of Game 2. During one free-throw attempt, a heckler shouted, “Retire!” but it felt more like a desperate plea than an insult. Wade in a rocking chair was the 76ers’ best hope for completing a dramatic comeback. Though his magic faded as the game wore on, his determination did not.
And when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, late in the game, called on the only past or current superstar on an otherwise starless team, Wade went in for the kill. He sneak-attacked Dario Saric for a steal and two-handed dunk, then found James Johnson cutting for an assist that turned a fragile two-point, fourth-quarter lead into some ecstatic relaxation. Finally, for good measure, Wade pulled up over Ben Simmons — a player nearly five inches taller who was 7 when Wade made his debut — and buried the jumper that sent fans scurrying to exits, made comedian Kevin Hart finally shut up and drew praise from Allen Iverson.
“When you’re in the midst of it, you can’t sit back and enjoy it too much,” Wade told Yahoo Sports, “but it’s definitely something that’s added to my book.”
In each of his 13 postseason experiences, Wade has managed to have at least one game with 25 or more points. As a member of the Bulls last season, Wade went into TD Garden and had 26 points and came two assists shy of a triple-double. Had Cleveland decided to hold on to Wade, he believes that he could’ve done the same because he has always been able to summon something extra for this stage. But those performances wouldn’t have had the same value. It wouldn’t have mattered as much to fans who weren’t with him when he hit a game-winning floater in his playoff debut in 2004, when he single-handedly destroyed Dallas in 2006, when he helped James taste that champagne the first time in 2012. There was only one place where he could swap the “D” for the “W” and create “Wade County.”
“As a basketball player, I feel comfortable being in this uniform. On that sideline with those guys. I didn’t feel comfortable in those other uniforms. I was trying to do it. I just feel like myself here,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to score 28 off the bench in the playoffs every night. But when this team needs me to step up and do things, I feel comfortable being able to do that. I don’t know what it is, but this is where I was born at and where I was meant to be. … I played well last year in Boston, Game 2, but it didn’t feel as good as this.”
Getting reacquainted with the weather and the demanding nature of #HeatCulture, and discovering the measure of his impact through his community involvement — especially after the Parkland tragedy — have been worthwhile. But Wade would be dishonest if he didn’t admit that the return has been a difficult adjustment in other ways. He changed numbers, positions and came off the bench in an attempt to make it work on a veteran-laden, championship-tested roster in Cleveland. The players who remain from his previous stint in Miami were used to him carrying the team, not coming off the bench.
“I can’t say it’s been easy, because it’s not. It’s definitely been a challenge for me,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “But as always, I try to understand. It’s a team sport and everyone has a role to play. Sometimes your role is to the be the star. Sometimes your role is to be the second guy. It’s a lot of different hats you’ve got to wear, and I’m just wearing a different hat right now. It doesn’t change my impact on these guys. Just because I’m coming off the bench, these guys treat me like I’m scoring 30 a night. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than Miami, coming off the bench for no other group than these individuals.”
In explaining Wade’s influence, Spoelstra has often relied on quoting a lyric from country music star Toby Keith: “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” Spoelstra credited Wade with a powerful pregame speech in which he spoke of their brotherhood and the need to do whatever it took to protect their family.
Though he didn’t always see what Haslem saw, or when Haslem saw it, Wade came to the realization that Miami was the only home he needed before it was too late. Wade and Haslem have been on this journey from the beginning, when they were wide-eyed rookies 15 years ago to now, when Wade is taking advantage of the opportunity fate presented him. An embrace from Riley at the funeral of Wade’s late agent, Henry Thomas, last January was all that was needed to mend the fences required for the reunion that had to be. “It’s always got to be right for him. I think timing is everything and I think the time that he came was the perfect time for him to be here,” Haslem told Yahoo Sports. “I was happy to have him back as my teammate. I never lost my friend. If anything, our bond got stronger when he left.”
So, what is it about Miami? What is it about there that doesn’t work elsewhere? “It’s just, it’s what I grew up in. It’s what I know. I had the opportunity to go out there. I felt it was needed for me to get away and come back and be appreciative of everything here and how things are ran, the culture that’s here,” Wade told Yahoo Sports. “Being here with these guys, these young guys that I was here with before, come back here and do it with this organization, it’s special.”
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