Dwyane Wade is 34 going on amazing.
"Obviously I'm not flying over the top of people," Wade said Saturday after leading the Bulls to a 121-105 win over the Indiana Pacers with 22 points and eight assists. "If I was I probably would be getting tested at 34, getting drug tested a lot. One thing I try to do is I watched a lot of film on my two favorite shooting guards, Kobe and Michael and seeing how they extended their careers. Seeing what they did and that's what I was able to do last year in Miami, really take my game to that mid post area and be successful down there and still have my playmaking ability on top. My goal is to be around for as long as you can play the game and be effective and I'm still trying to do that."
It's good news for the NBA and great and welcome news for the Bulls as the 12-time All-Star settles into not only a leadership role with this Bulls team, but a new stage of his career in which, like Michael Jordan after his baseball "retirement," came back to basketball less explosive but even more impactful.
The Bulls got their first win of the preseason after two losses with a 22-3 run to close the second quarter with Wade making a pair of threes, a running hook, finishing a fast break and setting up teammates. Taj Gibson again was the best of the interior big men with 20 points, making all nine of his shots with several power post spin and drop step moves. Bobby Portis started at power forward with Spencer Dinwiddie at point guard and Rajon Rondo resting. Portis was pulled early as the Bulls fell behind 13-4, but rebounded better later. Nikola Mirotic broke out with 18 points and nine rebounds, making four of six threes. Jimmy Butler added 15 points, nine of 10 on free throws as the Bulls muscled the running Pacers with 42 free throws to 23 for Indiana. Bulls reserve guard Isaiah Canaan added a rarity with a plus-40 on the plus/minus floor rating despite taking one shot in 16 minutes.
"That's an unbelievable stat for a guy who took one shot for the impact he had on the game," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "He did a great job getting into the ball. Cris [Felίcio] did a great job getting up and helping force some turnovers, Taj was great all night. It was absolutely good to see Niko out there knocking down shots, playing within himself and maybe even bigger than that was him getting the nine rebounds."
And while it was a good way to go into their first day off of the preseason, it was special to watch Wade perform like Rembrandt with a brush, Sinatra in the studio, Baryshnikov on the floor. With Rondo out, Wade moved more into the role of playmaker, one which he's been capable, though lesser regarded. He ran beautiful pick and roll sequences with Gibson with multiple scores, found Mirotic for threes, was basically in the middle of the two dominant sequences late in the half and in the third quarter that tilted the game for the Bulls.
When Wade was "Flash," as Shaquille O'Neal designated him, he led the league in scoring, hauled O'Neal onto his back and carried Miami to a title, was the doctor of oohs and aahs. That time is long gone, but few stars in the history of the game have adapted and prospered as adroitly Wade has, and he seems to be doing it again. He curtailed his play to accommodate LeBron James in Miami, and they won a pair of titles in four Finals appearances. He was supposed to be done almost two years ago after missing 48 games over two seasons and his scoring average falling under 20.
But now Wade has added a three-point shot, three of four Saturday and now five of seven in three games after seven of 44 all last season. It just wasn't what the team needed then. When it did in the playoffs, he casually averaged 52 percent on threes. Without Rondo, the Bulls needed a playmaker Saturday. Dinwiddie has played well, but he is more an offensive lead guard. So Hoiberg nicely spaced the floor with shooters like Canaan and Mirotic with Wade getting the second pass to operate in the lane, driving or finding teammates, an uncanny feel for interior passing for a man who flew over the lane not too long ago.
"Coach has seen some things I had success with last year," noted Wade. "Why change the blueprint? Me and Taj worked that pick and roll very well; not only did I hit him off it, he hit me for a three. Some days Rondo is going to have the ball more. Depending on how you play, figuring out what you have to do. When I played with LeBron I played the baseline, cutting, trying to find my way. When you play with a point guard you become more an offensive threat; when he's off the floor, like tonight, then someone has to get the offense moving. I have to do that, too. I've played a lot of backup point guard in my day; you always want to be utilized; you don't want a coach to feel he can't play you."
It's a rare acknowledgement for a star player like Wade, but it's also what made him a star player when many doubted. Wade isn't about who he's been; he's about what he can become. It's a remarkable and enviable trait, the desire to continue to not only improve, but prove yourself. They're always coming for you. Dwyane Wade isn't about to let them catch up even 13 years later.
And the multiple ball handlers is something the Bulls have lacked for several years to vary the offense.
"I don't play basketball with my pedigree," said Wade. "That does nothing for me, what I've done in the past. I'm in the moment. I have to come here to prove to not only my coaches but to my team that I can play this game and help make them better. Games like this help them see that. I'm out to prove myself. I never walk around with the façade that I'm this and that. I can do that when I get done playing. I can do that with my kids, ‘This is what dad used to do.' When you are playing this game you'll get your butt torn if you walk around with that façade. I'm out here at 34 trying to keep up with these young guys. They're going to come after me. So a lot of work to do."
Wade and the Bulls did it well Saturday, a 38-19 second quarter—though Indiana rested Paul George—leading to a 63-49 halftime lead. Indiana with Jeff Teague scoring 21 got within 73-71 in the third quarter before Wade set up Mirotic and Doug McDermott for threes and added his own free throws that led to an 88-77 lead after three. Wade played 27 minutes, adding an early fourth quarter three and the Bulls went ahead 94-77 when he left with about 10 minutes left. Rookie Paul Zipser again showed poise in a late stretch with a pair of driving scores as the Bulls pulled away. They'll play next Friday against the Cavaliers in the United Center.
With the way Wade still is capable of dominating in so many ways, who knows how far they and he will go.
"I want to stay around," said Wade. "I'd love to walk away from the game when I am ready and not be pushed out. So you always have to evolve. I'm good at what I'm good at, but you also can always get better. The old saying, you can't teach an old dog new tricks? You can. I'm an old dog around there, so I'm learning something new."