By: Dylan Barmmer
This is the word Dwyane Wade seems most fond of using.
Ask the HEAT’s sensational rookie guard to analyze the strengths of his game and the secret to his team’s stunning success this season, and he will use it.
Ask the baby-faced 22-year-old to pinpoint what he hopes his breathtaking playoff run said about him, and he will use it – in a soft, calm, polite voice that stands in stark contrast to his all-out assault on the court.
But then, when you think about it, it’s pretty fitting, this word.
Because all Wade did during his first NBA season was attack, attack, attack.
Attack a new position. Attack the basket. Attack anything or anyone that stood in his way.
And in the end, attack the NBA record books.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound dynamo came to the HEAT as the No. 5 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, just months removed from leading tiny Marquette University to only its second-ever NCAA Final Four appearance. Following on the heels of names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, Wade’s arrival in Miami was as quiet and unassuming as his off-court demeanor.
But it didn’t take long for the Chicago native’s name and game to blossom under the South Florida sun. After a sluggish start for the first-time point guard and the rest of his HEAT teammates, Wade began to leave his sizeable fingerprints all over what would evolve into a remarkable late-season resurgence.
Playing through an array of injuries and a demanding job description that included stints at both the point and his more familiar shooting guard spot, Wade finished in full-on attack mode. His 16.2-point scoring average was third on the HEAT and his 4.5-assist average tied him with backup point guard Rafer Alston for the team lead. And as Wade stocked the highlight reels with his lightning-quick crossover, silky smooth shot and explosive dunking ability, the HEAT caught fire, finishing 42-40 by virtue of a 17-4 season-ending run.
Wade finished a distant third behind Cleveland’s James and Denver’s Anthony in Rookie of the Year balloting, but what he would go on to accomplish during the HEAT’s foray deep into the Eastern Conference semifinals would leave many wondering if the votes hadn’t been tabulated too early.
In 13 playoff games, Wade elevated his attack, averaging 18.0 points, 5.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 45.5% from the field. By the time the HEAT had bowed out to the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in six semifinals games, Wade had become just the fourth rookie since the shot clock inception in 1954-55 to lead his team in postseason scoring and assists – putting him on a short list that includes New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury (1997) and childhood idol Michael Jordan (1985).
Wade scored at least 20 points in seven of those games – tying a HEAT playoff record held by Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway – and hit the winning shot in a pair of tight contests during the HEAT’s grueling 4-3 first-round series win over the New Orleans Hornets. The first of those shots came in the closing seconds of his first-ever playoff game, and set the stage for his starring role throughout the postseason.
Wade’s virtuoso performance in that series drew rave reviews from both teams and elicited comparisons to Hall of Fame names like Jordan and Magic Johnson. But more importantly, it allowed him to enter the HEAT’s series against the powerful Pacers with a renewed sense of resolve.
“It just gave me tremendous confidence knowing I could stay in front of a tremendous guard like Baron Davis,” said Wade after a thrilling 85-77 Game 7 win. “I’m different. I’m growing.”
And grow he did. Wade averaged 21 points in six games against the Pacers, who posted the NBA’s best regular-season record at 61-21. His thunderous dunk over 7-foot All-Star Jermaine O’Neal in a 94-87 win in Game 3 ignited a game-clinching run that gave the HEAT new hope after falling into a 0-2 hole. Wade scored 14 of his team-high 25 points in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a great player,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle after that game. “He’s stepping his game up at an important time of the year. At this point, I don’t think he feels like he’s a rookie, and we certainly don’t consider him to be one either.”
“Last game wasn’t really any different than any other night,” said HEAT center Brian Grant. “He’s ferocious. As (HEAT assistant coach) Bob McAdoo would put it, an alpha male. One of those guys that’s just gonna attack, attack, attack.”
The attack continued in a 100-88 win in Game 4, as Wade scored 20 points and handed out seven assists to help tie the series at 2-2. His 16-point, 10-assist effort stood out in a lopsided Game 5 loss. And his sensational 10-point fourth-quarter explosion nearly brought the HEAT back from the brink of elimination in a 73-30 Game 6 loss that saw him close with a team-high 24 points.
“I just told myself that we were down, so it was time for me to step up,” said Wade, who scored eight consecutive points in the final quarter to give the HEAT a 62-61 lead. “If we were going out, we were going out fighting.”
In the end, it was the Pacers who advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. But not before learning what Grant and his teammates had known all season long.
“There wasn’t anybody else that was drafting that saw that,” said Carlisle of Wade’s dominance. “Now they’ve got themselves a guy similar to a LeBron James or a Magic Johnson because he has size, great athletic ability and he’s a winner.”
The HEAT were especially thrilled with what they witnessed in Wade.
“You just watched an outstanding talent start to really grow up,” said HEAT head coach Stan Van Gundy a day after the postseason run had ended. “I think what was really remarkable during the Indiana series was his consistency throughout the series. Some players had their great nights and bad nights while Dwyane’s worst night was 16 points and 10 assists. That’s incredible for a rookie.”
“The fact that he developed so quickly in his confidence level and maturity, it sort of blew my mind,” said HEAT President Pat Riley. “I’ve never had a player I’ve drafted that was as good as Dwyane is, other than when Earvin (Magic Johnson) came in the first year.”
Ask Wade what he thought he proved during his commanding playoff performance, and his answer is, well, predictable.
“I guess we’ll find out once next season starts whether I built any kind of rep,” said Wade. “Hopefully, I’ve shown my style of play as an attacker.”