The return of Dwyane Wade went as you would expect. From the arrival the night before with television cameras camping out to the loud and lasting ovation as he walked towards the scorer’s table in the first quarter, everything fit. One special moment followed another, none to be soon forgotten by anyone for whom these moments mattered.
Yet as soon as Wade entered the game Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, however, with the dust settling and fans quieting, the return as an event was finished and the return as a basketball question began.
After a year and a half without the most prolific player in franchise history, not to mention the player with the sixth-highest usage rate of all time, how was Wade going to fit in with a roster built on a balanced scoring approach?
You’ll never find answers after a single game, but hints were ubiquitous.
The strongest hint came during a fairly inauspicious play at the end of the first quarter, when Josh Richardson took a handoff and had a drive stopped by Jabari Parker. With Wade nearby and about ten seconds left on the shot clock, Richardson kicked the ball out.
Two years ago, when Richardson was but a rookie finding his place in the league, the possession would then be Wade’s to create a shot with a short clock. But today, Wade moves the ball back to the now-established Richardson and goes to set a screen, forcing Jason Terry to switch onto Richardson, who then finds his own look.
“It’s not every night you see a superstar that gives you that reign to do that and lets you try and be great,” Richardson (16 points) said.
“It’s a lot different than a couple years ago.”
If any theme was consistent throughout the night, this was it. Miami’s young players were not sitting on the perimeter in reverence of a legend, waiting for him to carry them home. There was no deference, only a continuation of the HEAT’s attack-the-best-opportunity approach. Richardson and Tyler Johnson took 12 and 16 shots, respectively, to Wade’s six, but in more minutes. Overall all three had a usage rate hovering around 20 percent, meaning they each used 20 percent of Miami’s possessions to shoot, draw a foul or turn the ball over while they were on the floor.
“The thing that [Wade] told us was just continue to be ourselves,” Johnson (19 points) said. “He came in with the mindset of trying to get us involved and continue to help us get going. Which says a lot about him. There’s going to be nights where we need him to be more aggressive and score but at the same time his biggest thing was stay aggressive and let me fit in with you guys, not the opposite way around. I think it just allowed us to try and be free and clear minded.
“It’s very different [than two years ago]. It was the exact opposite. We had to fit in with Dwyane and what he was doing. He’s just another weapon that we have now.”
Just another weapon might almost sound dismissive of someone with Wade’s résumé, but that’s neither the intent nor meaning. It’s what the HEAT have become in his absence.
“With this team, you never know,” Goran Dragić said. “That’s the beauty of this team, we’re not a selfish team. It’s not like, ‘Tonight I need to score 20’. Whoever is going to have the mismatch for us, we’re going to go to them.”
When Wade does have the ball in his hands, there’s a good argument to be made that his playmaking will be of even great import than his ability to score. The HEAT are not short on play finishers, replete with dunkers and cutters and capable shooters. Where they occasionally can get stuck in the mud offensively is a difficulty in getting the ball, timely and on target, to those finishers.
At 36 years old, Wade can still not only get the ball to the open man, he can pass the man open.
“His IQ is amazing,” Hassan Whiteside said. “He knows when to look at the spots and when to throw it and make the right decisions.”
“The easiest thing to learn was Whiteside and Bam,” Wade said. “Those two guys are forces to be reckoned with. It’s going to make a lot of our jobs easier to understand how to utilize them. They’re going to open things up for all of us.”
Of course it’s easy for everyone to say the right things after one day together, and a day that ended with a victory at that. Little being said to the media, however, came off as the sort of empty lip service you sometimes hear in this league when players are put in a new situation.
“When I left, Josh Richardson was starting to become a three-point shooter,” Wade said. “Now we’re going to him in the fourth quarter and he’s making big baskets.
“It’s so cool to see someone evolve, so cool to see Tyler and these guys evolve to be good players in the NBA. It’s our job over the next few months to show them how good they really are. You don’t have to settle for being young or being middle of the pack.”
Ultimately it will be Erik Spoelstra’s choice as to who plays with who and who gets what shots, but if Friday is any indication Spoelstra will continue to identify the lineups that are working best in any given game, and those lineups will be the ones that finish things out. For all of Wade’s abilities as a late-game shot creator, he was sitting on the bench in the final five minutes as the Bucks attempted a late run – it was Richardson and Johnson making plays with the ball in their hands.
And when the Bucks kept inching closer, Wade wasn’t reinserted for his heroics. He entered the game in a crucial moment to throw an inbounds pass, calm the team and, later, save the game with a defensive play.
“He was saying some things where I said, ‘Damn’ and then I just kind of calmed down,” Johnson said.
When Richardson picked up a technical foul with 13 seconds left, offering the Bucks a chance to temporarily close within a single possession, it was Wade, Johnson says, who settled everyone down. Just make your free-throw, Wade told Richardson, and then make your next two. It’ll be a two-possession game. Relax.
There will be more to figure out from here. The Bucks are a tough, long defensive team but Miami still only scored 92 points per 100 possessions against them. Headed into the home stretch of the playoff race, there’s another level on that end the team will want to find. Even with the most clutch wins in the league (23), the HEAT will still need isolation scoring at times, particularly against switch-happy teams. There are still many capable shot-takers and only so many shots and possessions to go around. Spoelstra, now with nine healthy rotation players and even more available or expected to return from injury, has plenty of puzzle pieces to fit together in a relatively short amount of time.
For now, Friday was enough. A legend received a legend’s welcome off the court, and on it he clearly recognized that this team doesn’t need the old Dwyane Wade when it can be just as successful with this older Dwyane Wade. Nobody plays forever, but there are always more players.
“Like every path, in basketball and life, you grow as a person and a player,” Dragić said. “D-Wade has, what, 15 years in the league? Young guys are coming up, they have bigger roles on this team now. You want to feed them energy, you want to feed them positivity. Sooner or later they’re going to take over. It’s a normal [cycle] of life.”