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Heat's Wade still grinding in post-LeBron life

Career-long Miami star sees former Big Three teammate wearing down a bit as he also ages

POSTED: Oct 31, 2015 2:34 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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LeBron, Dwyane Wade share a pregame handshake

LeBron James greets Dwyane Wade with his once-customary pregame handshake ritual.

— The headlines LeBron James had grabbed in recent days mostly were the wrong kind, dwelling on his aching back, anti-inflammatory injections and a newfound vulnerability of one of the NBA's most durable and physically imposing figures.

It's the sort of stuff with which Miami's Dwyane Wade is all too familiar. Three years older, four inches and 40 pounds smaller, Wade has been the more battered player through his career -- before, during and after their four seasons together with the Heat (2010-2014).

LeBron and Wade duel in Cleveland

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade go at it in Cleveland with James scoring 29 and Wade 25 in the Cavs 102-92 victory.

It's generally accepted that Wade's inability to stay healthy and helpful was one of the reasons James pulled the plug on the partnership they had crafted with Chris Bosh. He famously returned to Cleveland in July 2014 to form a new Big Three with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and hasn't missed a beat, as far as beating a path to The Finals.

And yet here was James this week, the one with the injury issue, the one who turned 30 last December and now, maybe sorta, is breaking down.

Welcome to Wade's world.

"No doubt, it is [different]," Wade said Friday about NBA life after 30. "That's the other side. You have to adjust to your body. Everyone knows. ... Everyone's body is different. [But] LeBron's body has taken a beating.

"It's just about adjusting your game. Some nights you'll feel amazing, some nights you're not going to feel as good."

For James, Friday was one of the former. Here he had spent a couple days this week talking about the Cleveland Cavaliers' need to shift offensive responsibility to Kevin Love, then he promptly scores 29 in a suspense-less 102-92 victory over the Heat in the Cavs' home opener at Quicken Loans Arena.

All folks in the building and watching on ESPN saw was vintage LeBron, not old LeBron. But rest and DNPs associated with various ailments figure to be an increasing part of James' reality, with the Cavaliers' star headed down the path Wade already has limped.

"You feel different at 30," Wade said after Miami's shootaround sessions Friday. "It's like, the day you turn 30, you wake up that next day, you're like, 'I just feel different.' This league is all about being able to adjust your game around how high your body is feeling. And you have to change your game some nights."

Few ever have changed their game as dramatically as Wade. The reckless crash-test dummy who traveled through the league with a spatula ready to scrape him off the court is merely a gauze-wrapped memory. He is a more deliberate, more floor-bound performer, playing angles and taking shortcuts now. He picks his spots, he said, to attack the rim for dunks, preferring to take the path of less resistance and gravity.

"Fans and people expect you to stay the same all the time," Wade said. "Every athlete wants to. Every athlete wants to be that 19-, 20-, 21-year-old. But you can't. You've got to adjust to where you're at and where your body's at, and the pounding and the beating that you've taken. And still try to be effective and a good player."

Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra: "I love seeing guys like Dwyane go through his process and his evolution, and constant adaptation in staying ahead in that first fight with Father Time. He's changed so many of his habits to be able to play at such a high level that, really, it's unheard of. You try to find comparisons for Dwyane as a shooting guard as productive as he was even last year, and you just can't find many."

Well, there is that one who plays out in Los Angeles. Name of Kobe. Starting his 20th NBA season. Might ring a bell.

Wade smiled and shook his head.

"Ain't a goal for me," he said of Bryant lasting (more or less) two full decades. "That's a long time. I mean, I'm sure Kobe didn't think he would play 20 years. It's amazing. And he's been through a lot. A lot of injuries. And he's still out there. He's still Kobe Bryant."

Wade, of course, spotted Bryant, James and others who came straight from high school the three years he spent at Marquette. "I don't know how many players come in with that goal, 'I'm gonna play 20 years,' " Wade said. "You take it step by step. For me, it was like, 'I want to make it to 10.' After I made it to 10, I was like, 'I'm solid.' But then, you know, you keep going from there.

"But 20? No way."

Asked what his biggest concession to aging in the NBA has been, Wade said: "Just the stuff that you're used to. When you're younger, you're able to get past a guy on a pick-and-roll and just being able to take off. It ain't the same when you get on the other side [of 30]. Those steps, you've got to get in a little closer. You might not explode as high. So your game will change from what you're used to.

"When you're young, your athletic ability will get you past a lot of things whether it's defensively, whether it's offensively. Then when it starts coming down a little bit, now the IQ becomes more important. Out-thinking guys, all these things become even more important than out-jumping guys and getting to the rim as fast.

If Wade has mastered the ability to adapt and improvise physically, he has yet to do it collectively. There is a sobering reality facing him and the rest of the Heat, a mortality without James around anymore that rivals anything James' sore back is yapping about

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade chat

Guest correspondent Dwyane Wade sits down with former teammate LeBron James to discuss life on and off the court.

The message when the once and future Cavaliers star boxed things up in South Florida wasn't all that cryptic. It was James' way of telling Wade and the others, you Miami Heat folks have won all the championships you're going to win. Friends for life or not, he was taking that particular quest with him to northeast Ohio. The rest of the East would be playing for second place.

It's hard to quibble with that, beyond even Friday's relatively breezy outcome. The Cavaliers went to the Finals last spring and are favored to do so again. They have a year under their belts for familiarity, for camaraderie, for trust, for chemistry.

Wade has a team of newly acquired pieces -- and it showed. During Miami's final timeout, he spoke loud and clear to remind teammates where they were on their learning curve.

"That was a message that that team has been to the NBA Finals and our team, it was our second regular-season game together," Wade said. "So don't put your heads down. Let's continue to keep learning, executing. Let's continue to keep getting better each minute, keep learning each other. Our goal is to be that [team]. It doesn't happen in the second game, but we've got to build these habits now."

James, who still does the secret fraternity handshakes and chest pats with Wade before tipoffs, explained Miami's trek by invoking the Cavs'. "We're obviously a better team than we were at last year's home opener. We share the ball. We move the ball from side to side. Defensively, we communicate and we fly around to help each other. We know who we are as a basketball team. Last year, we didn't know who we were. We were trying to figure that out."

Wade at least is fighting the good fight, not shrinking from a challenge far different from -- and more humbling than -- those four years of ganging up on the rest of the NBA.

"It's fine," he said at the end of the night. "I understand what's needed from me as a leader standpoint. Plus it's early in the season. We have to go through these moments so we can learn what we need to do. What better teacher than the Eastern Conference champions? "

That's what they once were, James and Wade and Bosh too, until the "they" became "he." Wade's work is ahead of him now, instilling belief in new teammates while believing there's still time himself. Twenty years might not be enough.

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

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