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Steve Aschburner

Dwyane Wade (left) has struggled this postseason in his supporting role to LeBron James.
Nathaniel S. Butler /NBAE via Getty Images

Where's Wade? Heat superstar struggles to pick his spots

Posted Jun 13 2012 1:57PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Dwyane Wade's free pass through the 2011-12 NBA postseason is hereby revoked.

Or at least, it needs to be.

Pinning down LeBron James under a massive media microscope and dissecting his every performance, movement and facial tic has become a rite of spring. Meanwhile, his Miami teammate skates along, not entirely unexamined but not held accountable with quite the same diligence or, some would say, zeal.

Part of the reason is that Wade has shown no pattern of shrinkage at key moments the way James had -- until this postseason, anyway. Wade also gets slack from critics because he has a ring and is merely seeking another, as opposed to James, who is "chasing" his first. Wade has been here, done this, leading the Heat to the 2006 NBA title as a relative babe, just three seasons into his illustrious career.

But now he's 30, with high miles on his bruised and battered shooting guard's body, and the numbers folks normally associate with him are not there. Through 19 playoff games, Wade is averaging 22.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists -- almost the lowest of his nine NBA postseasons -- while shooting 46.5 percent overall and 25.8 percent (8 of 31) on 3-pointers.

Worse, he has been wildly inconsistent, exploding one night or in one series, then scraping for buckets the next. Wade had a nightmarish Game 3 against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, shooting 2-of-13 and, in frustration, snapping at Heat coach Erik Spoelstra near the team's bench when Spoelstra dared to chide Wade for lazy defense. Then he erupted for 99 points over the final three games of that series, snatching it away from the Pacers after seeking counsel from Tom Crean, his old Marquette coach now, at Indiana University.

Yet in losing four of his past six games, Wade has been held under 20 points three times and has put up 107 shots for 124 points.

Miami president Pat Riley might want to send a jet to pick up Crean for another intervention. Because something has to give. Wade has to get better.

The Heat's fate in the 2012 Finals might hinge on it.

In Game 1 Tuesday night, the Miami guard finished with 19 points but shot 7-of-19 to get them. Midway through, he was 3-of-8 for six points, though he did have five assists. It continued a trend in which Wade starts sluggishly or at least inefficiently in the first half, then maybe -- maybe -- gets it going in the second. He has missed 41 of 57 shots in the first halves of his last seven games.

In what became Oklahoma City's 105-94 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Wade's team went the other way, humming offensively to 54 points on 51.2 percent shooting in the first half, the bogging down for 40 on 40.0. It was Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook going tandem-crazy on Miami, outscoring everyone on the opposing roster in the second half, 41-40. That's a special realm normally reserved for Wade and James.

Not so much lately, though. And the Internet was unforgiving, even brutal afterward. Fans and critics focused their frustration on Wade, a relatively new phenomenon. Didn't show up, they Tweeted. Needs to be benched to start Game 2. No longer an elite player. Riding on James' back now.

In the more traditional questioning immediately after the performance, Miami teammate Udonis Haslem said: "I didn't see nothing wrong with his game. He gave us what we needed, 20 points or something like that. Collectively, overall, other guys got to figure ways to chip in, whether it be offensive rebounds or putbacks, whatever."

Wade didn't see anything wrong with his Game 1 performance either, at least not that he'd fess up to before reviewing the video. He bristled a bit when asked about it, and grew increasingly defensive when it was revisited.

Asked about attacking the Thunder defense more intensely, Wade said: "It all depends what you mean. I was attacking, getting my teammates shots, and I got shots for myself. Attacking to me is just being aggressive. Some nights I have big nights scoring and some nights I don't. That's been the season. That's just the way it's designed for me.

A little later he said: "You know, it's The Finals. I've been doing it all year. I am going to continue to do it. I'm a winner, so I'm just doing whatever I can to help my team win. One night I'm going to have a big night scoring, some nights I'm going to have a big night doing other things.

"Just doing whatever it takes to win the ballgame, not necessarily sitting up here worrying about scoring 30 points. I know that's going to make you guys feel better. I'm all about winning. We didn't win tonight and that's the biggest thing, so we'll find a way to win Game 2, not necessarily worried about me scoring 30."

The theories on Wade's under-performances are many: He's hurt, with a sore left knee that reportedly requires periodic draining to allow full range of movement (Wade hasn't divulged much here). He's old and its corollary, he's banged-up from years of knocks and spills.

Then there's this one: he's deferring. He has stepped back from "alpha" to "beta" to facilliate James' game, still struggles with the transition and, when the Heat needs something heroic, he can't instantly summon the ol' greatness. He admits he has consciously given up some of his "alpha dog" mentality to accommodate James' outsized game.

Whatever the case, it's one thing to work out kinks or navigate through partial games against an unproven team like Indiana or even a bunch of old wily pros such as Boston. But against the youth and size and energy of Oklahoma City, that could prove fatal.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, in a more relaxed setting on the court after shootaround, Wade spoke freely about his adjustment to fitting around the three-time MVP. Pragmatically, it's hard to score much in the first half of game when James is hanging 30 in 24 minutes against the Celtics, as he did in Game 6 of the conference finals. But this has been more than that.

"It was back and forth a lot," he said, of adapting. "It's not an easy decision to make, one of the toughest decisions I've had to make. Probably just a lot of thinking ... of where this organization wants to go. Where I want to go as a player. What I've done already, and what's important to me. To me, it boiled down to what's important to me is winning. What's the best chance of us winning?

"LeBron James has always been the 'alpha' since he was a young'un. I've been a guy who's been both -- been 'alpha, been able to play back and forth. And I've also been on a team with a star that kind of let me go a little bit. And that became the best thing for our team at the time, even though he was still a dominant player."

In 2006, Shaquille O'Neal took a half step back for Wade as the season and postseason played out, and the Heat won the championship for it. "I kind of seen it before," Wade said, "so I decided in myself that it was something that needed to be done for us to be as good as we want to be."

Stepping back has forced Wade to change, even shrink his game on purpose, and in last year's playoffs he strained a little at his self-imposed leash. He's clearly straining again now.

"Y'know, it's changing a mentality. You go back and forth a lot," he said. "I can't even explain it."

B-b-b-but you're giving up something that made you great, someone suggested.

"Yeah I am. That's the ball," he said, laughing. "The ball made me great. And I'm giving it up a lot. But there are times where I'll still have to come through. I still know how important I am to this team.

"That's what all that matters to me. It don't really matter to me what the chatter is on the outside about our team and what we need to do and what I ain't doing or I need to do.

Getting to this point, if we reach our final goal, then I'll feel like I made the right decision."

It's all about picking his spots, Wade said.

But just in case he's listening, Game 2 -- and maybe three more times in the next six games overall -- would qualify as one of those spots.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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