SAN ANTONIO -- There was a big injury scare to open the NBA Finals, as you might have heard. It was enough to throw the Heat for a loop and Game 1 to the Spurs, and the injury in question, big surprise here, didn't involve Dwyane Wade.
Yes, LeBron James was the victim who was unable to walk and had to be carried off the court in pain, and in some ways this was met by a huge sigh of relief from the Heat.
They'll take LeBron and his muscle cramps any day over Wade and his rickety knees, because everyone knows if Wade needs help to the bench, he might stay there, for a while, if not for good.
That's how the Heat and the basketball world are conditioned to feel, anyway, regarding Wade and his injury history. Well, at least up until the last month or so. Suddenly, Wade is the perfect picture of health, buzzing around the court like a rookie, soaring to the rim without even a hitch or hesitation, feeling a sense of rebirth in these NBA playoffs.
It's refreshing news, at least to everyone but the Spurs, how Wade isn't forcing anyone to hold their breath when he crashes to the floor after a foul. He's 32 and rolling along with knees that, at least in the past, required lots of oil. But his age and knee history isn't an issue at the moment, and as long as it stays that way, a healthy Wade gives the Heat an advantage they'll need against the revenge-minded Spurs in this series.
Yes, the difference between Wade last June and today can be summarized in a smile and three words: "I feel better."
He hasn't missed a game this post-season, nor required a meaningful rest. He's averaging 34.6 minutes, 18.7 points, roughly four rebounds and four assists while staying with his man on defense. Those are healthy and vibrant marks for any 11-year veteran, but considering all the angst over the last two years over Wade's ability to play pain-free, this production is twice as impressive and a wee bit unexpected.
"He's feeling better not only physically, but better about himself," said Udonis Haslem, Wade's best friend on the club. "He always knew he could play at a certain level if his body allowed him, and it hasn't been an issue. It also shows how much hard work he put in to give himself this chance. He has a lot of pride and he knows what he can still do in this league."
Wade missed 28 games this season, raising red flags once again, although his time off was a bit misleading. It wasn't all due to knee inflammation; almost half of those games were due to a faulty hamstring that just needed rest. With the Heat's playoff position wrapped up easily in the East, keeping Wade on the bench most of April, even though he could've played, just made sense.
When the playoffs began, Wade answered the bell and hasn't slowed down since. Which only begs the obvious question: What happened?
Well, there are three theories:
Dedication. Wade put in the work, and continues to do so. He wanted no part of what he went through last season when he lived in constant fear and perhaps paranoia about his body and whether it would hold up. Miami leaned on Shane Battier and Mike Miller and Ray Allen to carry some of Wade's load in the playoffs and the Finals, and fortunately for the Heat, those players came through. But: Miller is gone, Battier has one foot out the retirement door and Allen, though still three-point friendly, is a year older. A three-peat would require a healthier Wade.
Wade might be the only player in the league with his own traveling therapist. He gets constant help from Tim Grover, the famed fitness guru, and whatever system they've put in place, it's working so far.
"This year he's been with me and really helping me do the things I want to do in my role on this team," said Wade. "At times when I needed to do more, I've physically been able to do more. At times when I [wondered] if I needed to take a step back, that hasn't been the case."
Pride. Wade's ego, in some ways, rivals LeBron's. He still sees himself as a top-10 NBA player and the league's premier two-guard, even though general sentiment might disagree. He took it personally when he was poked in the eye by Kevin Durant, who last fall said James Harden was better and added: "As on older guy, it's time to pass the torch to a younger guy." That's when Wade delivered a clever comeback with a "note to self: make him respect your place in history … again."
When he was on the floor this season, Wade was solid, averaging 19 points and shooting 54.5 percent. His scoring average was his lowest since his rookie season, but Wade also took fewer shots and was more efficient with the ball. Also, consider that Wade is logging time deep into the post-season for the fourth straight year, and also add the workload from the 2012 Olympics, and his time on the court has pushed his limits.
Future. This is a money year for Wade, and also LeBron and Chris Bosh, but a big one for Wade. More than the other two players, it's Wade who feels the pinch to prove himself worthy of big money because of his age and health. Does he hold much leverage on the money front? Not more than LeBron, and maybe not more than Bosh. The upcoming negotiations could be dicey, therefore, for someone who's second only to Dan Marino in Miami sports folklore but is entering his twilight.
Will the Heat give Wade the max this summer if he opts out (he has two more years left on his current deal) and becomes a free agent? Hard to imagine that; it wouldn't make financial sense. Do they give him a five-year extension? That would mean a 37-year-old player with a knee history will be weighing down the cap. Will the negotiations go smoothly, given Wade's tight relationship with Micky Arison and Pat Riley, or will they contain a degree of friction, as negotiations often do?
Because this is unquestionably the last big contract he'll see, Wade could drive a hard bargain. Remember, LeBron doesn't necessarily need to demand max money -- even though he'd get at least $50 million a season without a salary cap -- because he clears massive dollars in endorsements. Bosh has recently said he'd accept less money for the chance to add to his ring collection. Wade is seen as the bigger risk, and only because of his health.
Wade recently discussed his upcoming summer with a touch of defiance in a recent interview with ESPN.com. Here's what he said: "I have no reason to feel that I can't play at his level for more [years] to come. I'm not retiring [any] time soon, so if that's what people are waiting on, that's stupid."
And this: "I've worked very hard throughout my career to earn what I've earned and put myself in [this] position. So I will never feel I have to take less after this, or I have to do this. It's not my job. It's the job of others to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I'll be a part of that. But if I don't, I won't. It's as simple as that. I don't feel that pressure at all."
The more you watch Wade on the floor, the more you see the determination of an ex-gimpy veteran who's guzzling plenty of motivational fuel, then. Another championship would be his fourth, putting him in exclusive company and will throw him into the discussion for all-time greats at his position. Plus, it would give him a hammer at the negotiating table.
Beating the Spurs will take more than LeBron, and the next logical candidate to shake up the Spurs is Wade, who is Miami's best defense against Manu Ginobili and also LeBron's most logical running mate on the fast break.
"It's nice to see the old Dwyane, not that I expected anything less," said Bosh. "He has more to prove to the people on the outside than on the inside. This is what we knew would happen."
A combination of pride, dedication and a drive to prove his future value to the franchise has conspired to give Wade a rebirth here in the summer, where Miami is trying to keep a dynasty alive. With his body cooperating, Wade is staying on the floor, reliving his rich past and relieving most fears, if not all.