It sounded like a reach then, and even sillier now, the notion about LeBron James coming to Miami in 2010 to ride Dwyane Wade's cape to multiple NBA titles. That was just one of many cruel public jabs at LeBron for having the nerve to pack up and leave Cleveland for a better situation, as though nobody ever did that before.
Three seasons, two MVPs and a Finals MVP later, we know for sure LeBron isn't the one riding shotgun in this arrangement. The keys to the franchise were handed over rather quickly, actually, and now it's pretty clear who needs whom. Wade pulled his weight the first few seasons, but unless something changes for the better in the coming weeks, this might turn into a full-blown piggyback in these playoffs.
Has anyone seen the 2006 Finals MVP and nine-time All-Star and the player most responsible for creating the Big Three era in Miami? Or was that guy left behind with the 27-game winning streak?
"It's all about winning," Wade said, dismissing everything else. "As long as we're winning, everything's fine."
As we wait for the start of the Eastern Conference finals, where the Heat will finally earn their money in the playoffs, it's fair to ask what's up with Wade. While LeBron flourishes on both ends and shows a more devastating inside game and reliable three-point shooting, the role for Wade seems to be disintegrating. He's not completely gone from view, and certainly not a liability. He just a physical risk more than anything, with a rickety right knee giving him fits and affecting his playoff performance, easily the shakiest of his career.
Either Wade will snap back, regain his good health and walk in-step with LeBron to defend their NBA title next month, which is possible. Or he'll become a third option against the Pacers and force LeBron to turn into Superman.
"I love the fight he continues to give," said LeBron. "When he's on the floor, he's a threat."
This much is true. Wade, at age 31, can still run the floor, score in transition and must be respected by the defense. That said, Miami and coach Erik Spoelstra did a good job hiding Wade against the Bucks and then the handicapped Bulls. Wade also had plenty of rest between those series to heal. That free ride ends now. The Pacers are rugged defensively and force even great players to work extra hard. Plus, Wade will have the responsibility of keeping up with Lance Stephenson, a quick and athletic guard on the rise, fresh off the best game of his life and suddenly full of swagger. Normally, any suggestion that any of this would be troubling for Wade would be laughed off as the ramblings of the insane. But these aren't normal times for Wade.
He's averaging 13 points in the playoffs, an eight-point drop from the regular season, on 45-percent shooting. At times he's not even looking for the ball, taking almost seven fewer shots a game. It's awkward territory for one of the best post-season players of his generation. In younger and healthier times, Wade was made for prime time, someone who raised his game along with the stakes, who came into this postseason with lifetime averages of 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and nearly two steals a game. His one-man demolition of the Mavericks in '06, when he delivered one of the greatest Finals performances ever, pushed Wade into megastar status.
But soon after that, the injuries hit, and while they never sent him down for the count, they've followed him like a little brother. Twice in the Bulls series, Wade complained about knee tweaks, even leaving the game once.
Without much from Wade, Miami turned to Ray Allen, and if his three-point shooting is sharp, he could see extended minutes. But can Miami expect to beat the Pacers if Wade hobbles? Isn't Indiana better than that?
"It's not easy," Wade said, about his diminished role, "but all I concern myself with, at the end of the day, is whether or not we win. And I can still help this team win."
Interesting how this series with Indy suddenly becomes a test for Wade. Last year he suffered a meltdown in Game 3 in Indiana, needing to be separated from Spoelstra after a bench blowup and scoring just five points on two-for-13 shooting. Wade wasn't in the best of health for that game, but rallied strong by carving up Paul George and scoring 30, 28 and 41 points in the final three games.
So there's a chance for a repeat, then. Remember, Wade had a strong season with an average of 21 points, five rebounds and five assists, and he missed only a handful of games with legit aches. Nobody said anything about a declining player then. That's encouraging news for Miami because a healthy Heat team would be nearly impossible to beat four times, considering they've lost only three times since Feb. 1.
It's all about Wade and what he's able to give against the Pacers. If he's reaching for his limbs a lot more than the ball, there could be trouble in Miami.
Here's how the Eastern Conference finals, which start Wednesday, shape up:
About the Heat
In some ways, we haven't seen the Heat play this postseason. Miami swept the overmatched Bucks in Round 1 and then finished off a Bulls team that slowly fell apart from injuries in five games. Other than losing to the Bulls in Game 1 after a long layoff between series and then sweating out the clincher against Chicago, the Heat is still looking to get a good run from someone. The bottom line: Since losing to Indiana on Feb. 1, Miami is 46-3, a stretch of dominance rarely seen by anyone in any sport. LeBron James, much like his team, gives the impression his foot isn't pressed against the pedal very hard just yet; his playoff numbers are all slightly down from his MVP regular season. But then, he hasn't had many reasons to burn calories the last few weeks. Miami will bring the usual approach of using the Big Three while getting help from three or four role players, but there have been two interesting developments. First: Norris Cole outplayed starter Mario Chalmers and received roughly the same amount of court time. Cole shot 68 percent from three-point range and was Miami's best player in the closing moments of the series-winner over Chicago. Second: Udonis Haslem, mainly for matchup reasons, saw his minutes expand, and, if nothing else, didn't damage the Heat when he was on the floor. Also, with Pacers center Roy Hibbert suddenly developing a scoring mentality, expect more burn for Chris Andersen, a major pickup for Miami this season.
About the Pacers
Paul George is in the final stages of a breakout season that saw him become an All-Star, win the Most Improved award and propel his team into the East finals. Now he has the tricky task of guarding LeBron just days after he checked Carmelo Anthony for six games. This matchup, which should greatly influence the direction of the series, will either push George toward star territory or further cement LeBron's rep as the toughest assignment in the game. The most wonderful revelation for the Pacers in the last few weeks has been Roy Hibbert, though. His offense, sporadic just two months ago, has made him into a more complete center. His block of an Anthony dunk attempt Saturday was "a great, great defensive play," according to Melo himself, and a warning shot to anyone on Miami who decides to attack the rim and challenge Hibbert. Lance Stephenson closed the Knicks series with a massive 25-point, 10-rebound game although he remains highly inconsistent, while point guard George Hill is shooting only 41 percent and seeing his play-making duties shift more to George.
About the series
The Pacers are the toughest-possible team in the East for Miami to play, one that thrives on defense and rebounding (they're No. 1 on the boards, Miami is dead last) and brings more than one weapon offensively. They're also a lot smarter than last season and, with the rise of Stephenson, more athletic. They beat Miami two out of three during the season and led two games to one in their playoff series last season. If Wade isn't right then this will be a closer series than you think. Let's predict Wade will be just OK and LeBron more than enough.
The pick: Heat in 6.