In the National Basketball Association, things can change quickly.
Just ask Dwyane Wade.
One year ago, with LeBron James and Chris Bosh by his side, the Miami HEAT seemed poised to achieve the first three-peat that the league had seen since Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson won three championships in a row in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
After that run ended a bit short, one year later, James is back in Cleveland, Bosh has been ruled out for the remainder of the season and Wade is admirably leading a late-season surge and hoping to help the HEAT qualify for the playoffs for what would be the seventh consecutive season.
If there is one thing Wade has proven over the past several weeks, though, it is that he is still a championship-caliber player.
It is especially impressive considering that the physical deterioration of Wade is something that has been a topic of discussion for the past two years.
* * *
In the 2013 NBA Finals—when the HEAT outlasted the San Antonio Spurs in seven games—Wade put on an inspiring performance. His 23-point, 10-rebound effort came with throbbing pain in his right knee and uncertainty as to whether his playing would negatively impact his productivity for the following season.
He shoved it all aside for his team.
“As athletes, we go through a lot that a lot of people don’t know about that we don’t like to talk about and discuss,” Wade said after the HEAT defeated the Spurs in Game 7, 95-88.
“But it takes a lot to play this game,” he said, shaking his head. “For me, it was about, ‘Okay, I’m dealing with these knee issues, I’m gonna stay up 24 hours a day to make sure I can give [my] guys what I have.’”
And as he walked off of the floor back on June 20, 2013, it had literally seemed as though Wade had left it all on the court.
“This was the most difficult one,” he said. “Dealing with things, obviously with my body, going through things. … We can walk away from this and say that we gave everything we had and we deserve this because [the Spurs] pushed us to our limits.”
Wade talked about the ups and downs the HEAT had, the challenges they had faced as a unit, and the persistent issues he has had with his body breaking down. From pain killers, to ice, to heating pads, as Wade has aged, his health regimen and habits have changed dramatically.
In the ensuing season, after it had been revealed that the HEAT would be strategically resting Wade over the course of the regular season with the hopes of having him fresh for the playoffs, Wade, with the cameras off, in a one-on-one conversation with Basketball Insiders, spoke of the frustration of effectively being pitch counted.
When asked whether he would prefer to play all 82 games during the regular season or be fresh entering the playoffs, he seemed unsure of which strategy was best.
“We have a big picture here,” Wade said back in November 2013. “I can’t really say that there’s an answer to that. You just gotta try to read the game, read your body, kind of how things are going with your team.
Oh yes, what a difference a year makes.
One year ago, with his mind on a three-peat, Wade sat out 12 of the HEAT’s final 18 regular season games. With James and Bosh by his side, nothing mattered except being fresh and rested for their inevitable run.
Now, as the 2014-15 season draws to a close, it is taking Wade everything he has to drag Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside into the postseason.
* * *
Since entering the league at the rather ripe age of 20 in 2003, Wade, now 33 years old, is closing in on 800 regular season games. He has an additional 150 games of playoff wear and tear on his body as well as two summers worth of mileage from his participation in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Like Bosh, in many ways, Wade has been somewhat hidden behind the large shadow that James cast over South Florida.
Quite simply: in the four years that Wade played alongside James and effectively served as the Robin to his Batman, it was easy to forget that Wade is one of the greatest shooting guards to ever the play the game.
His dominant performances have become all the more rare, but if there is one thing he has proven over the course of the past several weeks of the 2014-15 season, it’s that he still has a lot left in the tank, even if the HEAT have not been dominant.
On March 29, in leading the HEAT to a 109-102 victory over the Detroit Pistons, Wade turned in a 14-for-27 shooting performance en route to scoring 40 points. It was his second 40-point performance of the season. To truly appreciate the magnitude of that, consider that Wade failed to register a single 40-point game over the course of the past three seasons. Before 2014-15, his last 40-point effort came all the way back in February of 2011.
Back on March 16, when his HEAT hosted James and the Cavaliers, Wade was dominant, turning in a 13-for-18 shooting performance en route to a 32-point, five-steal effort that saw the HEAT prevail over the Cavaliers, 106-92.
Wade followed up that effort with a 32-point, four-rebound, six-assist effort that saw the HEAT outlast the Portland Trail Blazers, 108-104.
For Wade, it was the first time he had turned in back-to-back 30-point efforts since March of 2012.
In other words, without James and Bosh, with the HEAT desperately trying to qualify for the playoffs and keep their streak alive, Wade, even at his ripe age, is once again the alpha and the omega of the HEAT’s hopes.
He has responded by turning back the clock and doing things that he has not done in years. We now know, though, that it was never a question about capability, only necessity.
* * *
Since March 1, over the course of 16 games, Wade has turned in an impressive 23.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He continues to battle knee and hamstring issues but laces up his sneakers whenever possible and leaves it all out there on the court.
In terms of on court play, Wade has truly turned back the clock. He has been asked to play on the ball with increasing frequency, being entrusted to control the tempo and flow of Erik Spoelstra’s offense on a regular basis. With his speed steadily diminishing over the years, Wade has continued to utilize his agility and amazing footwork to get to the areas on the floor where he is most comfortable. At just 6’4, he continues to be an exceptional post player for his size, routinely scoring points or causing defensive breakdowns while operating from the low box.
In his finest performance of the season—the aforementioned 40-point effort against the Pistons—Wade turned back the clock, utilizing his full repertoire of curls, turnaround jumpers, floaters, pump fakes, drives to the basket and step backs.
Afterward, it was revealed that Wade had fluid drained from his right knee.
Afterward, when asked how he was able to turn in the throwback performance, he answered simply.
“Will,” he said.
In preparation for the March 29 contest, Wade knew that the HEAT needed to capitalize on their home stand and needed a few wins. Draining fluid from the knee is a procedure that NBA players undergo rather frequently, however, the preferred method is to allow fluid to dissipate naturally. Fluid may build up for any number of reasons, but for pro basketball players, its presence is usually the result of joint inflammation. Draining the fluid alleviates pain and allows for a better range of motion, but could have an adverse affect on the long-term health and viability of the joints.
Considering Wade’s injury history, specifically with his knees, undergoing the procedure prior to a regular season game shows just how important getting the HEAT to the playoffs is to the star shooting guard.
“You just do whatever you can,” Wade said. “We have great doctors so you listen to what they say. After getting banged in my knee, my knee was swollen up and I was able to get some fluid out, get some rest yesterday and come in today. I’m not feeling 100 percent but I’m feeling good enough to help my team get a win, so at this time of the year, it’s about doing what you can.”
Or, more appropriately in the case of Wade, doing everything you can.
* * *
On April 2, just the second game after his 40-point outing against the Pistons, Wade led the HEAT into Cleveland to do battle with James and the Cavaliers for the second time within a month. On a routine drive to the basket, with Iman Shumpert standing between him and the basket, Wade slipped on a wet spot on the court and appeared to hyperextend his left knee. He left the game early and failed to return for the second half.
Immediately, the HEAT, who is entrenched in a battle for the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, was thought to be done. Without a healthy Wade, there is no chance that Miami would outlast the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics for one of the conference’s finals two playoff spots.
Yet, 48 hours later, Wade was back in the lineup. He scored 24 points against the Pistons on 11-for-18 shooting from the field, but the HEAT lost the game on a Reggie Jackson buzzer beater. Still, that Wade returned to the lineup and turned in another powerful performance was just another reminder as to his mettle.
Entering play on April 5, the HEAT find themselves clinging to the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. This year, the goal is qualification.
Indeed, a year makes a major difference.
That is, of course, except with regard to Wade. Even as the sun sets on his career, he has been the constant in the golden era of Miami HEAT basketball. So long as he is able to, he will give his heart and his body to the game and to his team.
A lot has changed over the last 12 months, but in Miami, one thing remains constant: the presence and drive of the most accomplished player in franchise history.
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