The Pendulum of Dwyane Wade
This was not a perfect Dwyane Wade game, but it was a Dwyane Wade game. For the Miami HEAT, in June with a berth in the NBA Finals on the line, that’s all that mattered. And that’s all that will continue to matter.
Defense was the story of the HEAT’s series with the Indiana Pacers. When the team reached the level of intensity that their defensive scheme is built around, they won games. In Game 7, the HEAT sustained their most impressive first-half showing of the season on the defensive end, swarming the ball at every opportunity and making life generally miserable for the Pacers. It was a tour-de-force performance, and without it HEAT wouldn’t be headed to the Finals to face the San Antonio Spurs. But part of what made the defense so good, and the offense able to pull away on the other end, for so long was Wade being Wade. And then some.
The oscillations of the Wade narrative are both sudden and predictable. It’s easy to guess what the reaction will be based on his shooting percentages, turnovers and how high he seems to be jumping on a given night, but there’s nothing gradual about the shift. He plays a good game and he’s the player we know he is. He plays poorly and he’s on the downswing of his career. The pendulum swings both ways, but rarely stops in the center.
What powers these changes in Wade’s lore are our expectations. We expect Wade to be one of the best players in the league, and because we expect him to play like that we are disappointed when he doesn’t. But somewhere along the line it’s easy to forget where those expectations came from. As this Pacers series wore on, Wade was talked about as a player who relied primarily on athleticism and a fading, limited skillset. He looked like a limited player at times, but responses to his play were always based off the prior knowledge that Wade is one of the premier players in the league.
And you don’t join the league’s true upper tier by being just an athlete.
In Game 7, Wade reminded us all of why our expectations of him are so high. He didn’t do it by dropping 40 points in an elimination game. He did it by finding a way to make a positive impact on the game despite his own physical – and non-chronic – limitations beset by an aggravated right-knee bruise. “I'm going to play through pain because this is my job,” Wade said. “My team depends on me. Like I said a couple of series ago, I would love to be one of the players who never has to deal with these conversations, never have to deal with these injuries. But that's not my path.
“I've been through so much away from the game and in the game that I'll find a way. I'll figure it out. Some way, somehow, you give me enough time, I'll figure it out. That's what I was able to do tonight.”
Just as it happened against the Pacers last season, LeBron James knew he could help get Wade – shooting 44 percent for 13.7 points per 36 minutes in the first six games of the series – going. Just as it happened last season, James tried to do so by getting Wade the ball around the rim off a cut.
It worked, about 90 percent of the way.
“The first play of the game I called a play for D-Wade,” James said.
“But I actually came out the first play and I hesitated,” Wade said. “LeBron hit me on a lane cut. I didn't shoot it right away.”
“Even though he didn't shoot the ball, he got a good touch in the paint,” James said. “Just to make him feel like he was a part of the offense, make him feel in a good rhythm.”
“Then I wound up dribbling it out and posting up and shooting on the next shot,” Wade said. “After that, the next time I said I'm going to let it go and make the plays I need to make and use my talent and my abilities.”
This hasn’t always been a productive thought process for Wade. When he tries to get himself going, that can lead to long, two-point jumpers off the dribble that aren’t necessarily in the flow of the offense. If this goes on too long, Wade just ends up getting in his own way. For a beat, it looked like he might spiral down that staircase after his first miss, as just a few possessions later he found space – early in the shot clock – for a jumper as he curled off a wing screen.
The ball went up. It came down. It bounced around. Finally, it went in.
And that was all Wade needed.
“Once you see one go in, I think my first shot kind of bounced in,” Wade said. “It played with me for a while and it finally went in and I was like "Thank you."
“When you're playing the game and you don't see that ball going through the basket that often, it becomes a mental thing. Obviously it's a physical thing [with his knee]. It's a story. We all know that. But when that ball is not going through the basket as much as you're used to it, it becomes a little mental. You start hesitating a little too much.”
After that shot, there was no hesitation. Only Wade.
Again, it wasn’t perfect, but it worked within the context of the team. Wade only shot 7-of-16 in the game, but only three of those attempts were outside of the painted area. He turned the ball over five times, but he was attempting aggressive moves and passes.
He was reminding us of his talent, and informing our expectations in his own way.
That included making calculated gambles for steals at the top of the key, but only after swarming Indiana’s size in the paint.
It also meant attacking the paint, and that size. Attacking not just to get a shot up over the defense, but attacking into the defense. Into contact.
For the first time all series, Wade earned his way to the free-throw line more than six times (making all seven). It wasn’t that Wade could suddenly jump higher off his knee or make faster quick-twitch movements. He simply found beneficial angles and attacked, euro-stepping his way into the lane by getting the help defense to hesitate for half-a-beat before committing – moves he could reasonably make over and over against the Spurs even if he somehow loses the ability to jump altogether.
It may not have been the Wade you’re used to seeing, darting every which way into and over contact, but it was a fine display of the skills that got Wade to the top in the first place. Skills that Wade won’t lose as he ages, skills – including one of the most efficient post-up games in the league – that he’s worked to refine exactly for moments like these, when his body just doesn’t want to cooperate.
“It showed throughout the whole game that he was in the rhythm,” James said. “He started to make lay ups, he started to attack, he started to make his free throws. So it was big time.” It didn’t work on the first possession as James had intended, but eventually they linked up. Waiting patiently on the wing, Wade saw his defender turn his head at the wrong time and, as he had done multiple times in this series, made his move. Only this time, he finished.
More than anything else, Wade simply played harder, better and with more purpose – the same things Spoelstra asks of his defense when it has struggled.
“We knew he at times was in and out of the series just terms of his impact,” David West said. “But his experience took over tonight. And I thought he made some key plays. He missed some shots, went and got it off the glass a few times. That's just a testament to how hard he played.
“I thought he beat us in the effort department and he physically played harder tonight than we had seen in the previous six games.”
“He was going to try to do everything possible, whether his shot was falling or not,” Frank Vogel said. “He had the mindset to impact the game in any way he possibly could. And he did it defensively with deflections and particularly on the offensive glass, where he exhibited great effort.”
Look, we get it. This is a team-run website telling you that Wade played well in a closeout game after a tough series. We’re not trying to rewrite history here. Sometimes it’s just important to still the narrative pendulum and recalibrate expectations. Wade is limited physically right now – with an injury that should heal in the summer – but he’s still playing, just as we expect of all great players around this time of year. We expect them to find a way, even if they aren’t perfect for every step of the ride. Wade took some frustrating shots and racked up some frustrating turnovers against the Pacers, but there’s something to be said for a man battling his own body and finding a way to make plays.
“There will be some moments next series where I won't be looking so great,” Wade said. “I'm sure there will be some great headlines out there about myself. I'll continue pushing.”
This is not to say that Wade deserves more credit. Credit, as Spoelstra might say, is just noise to this team. But Wade does deserve, as all players do, proper perspective. The aging process is not a cliff. The body changes, and the mind has to adjust. This year and last, Wade has had to deal with injuries that made him feel older than his age would suggest, and in each instance he’s had to figure out what he can and can’t do.
But in each instance, he did eventually figure it out. He’s preempted the process by developing his post game and work off the ball, and that work has paid off. He has skills to fall back on, in this year, the next and the others that will follow. Wade might not always look Wade, but that depends on what you expect Wade to look like. He wasn’t perfect in Game 7, but he looked like himself by doing the things he can do to help his team win. The HEAT don’t need him dunking on the Spurs, they simply need him to do what he can do and to do it well. What he does might not fit our expectations of him, but that might be something we need to change just as he does.