CHICAGO -- It’s been a long time since the Heat needed Dwyane Wade to win a playoff game for them, and a longer time since he’s looked capable of it.
Neither was the case on Monday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals -- not against a Bulls team that has run out of gas and hope, a team that barely shot 25 percent from the field, including an unsightly 0-for-12 from Nate Robinson -- in an 88-65 snoozer that gave the Heat a 3-1 series lead.
It was the last time this season that the paying customers at United Center will be treated to Derrick Rose doing basketball things on the court during pregame warmups. This series isn’t coming back to Chicago, where Wade, the native son, suffered his latest setback in an ongoing battle with what he called “shooting pain” in his troublesome right knee.
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Wade collided with Jimmy Butler while making a move in the post in the second quarter, contact that was mild and innocuous by this series’ standards – by any standards, really. He missed a fall-away jumper and avoided putting weight on his right leg as he staggered toward the sideline.
“Shooting pain,” Wade said. “It hurts. But eventually I was able to come back, retape my knee and come back out and try to finish.”
Finish he did: 3-for-10 from the field with six points, bringing his scoring average in this postseason to a lethargic 12.3. The bone bruise that sidelined Wade for six games in April and Game 4 of the first-round series against Milwaukee just won’t leave him alone.
And it won’t stop planting doubts about what happens when the Heat need Wade to win a playoff game for them against healthier competition.
“I know what to do,” Wade said. “I’ve been playing with it for almost two months now. I’ll make the adjustments.”
The only adjustment Wade is making now sounded more gruesome than encouraging. In describing some of the treatment he’s undergoing for three bone bruises that surround his kneecap, Wade said trainers try to “move the kneecap so it doesn’t rub,” and then tape it in place. That’s Robocop stuff, and it doesn’t bode well for a Miami team that will someday soon need Wade to move better and contribute more than he is now.
“It’s difficult for him,” LeBron James said. “He’s trying to give us everything he’s got right now.”
And it isn’t much.
On his way off the court after the final horn, the death knell for the Bulls and for this series, Wade stopped in the hallway and chatted with an old friend. Tom Crean, the Indiana University coach who coached Wade at Marquette, gave his former pupil a much needed bro-hug and some words of encouragement.
“I think the thing about Dwyane, like most guys who continue to play at a level of greatness, they know they have to work through it,” Crean said under the stands in United Center. “… He takes care of his body, he does all the rehab and treatment things that he has to do, but he never comes out and uses it as a crutch. And I’m not sure everybody on the outside realizes how bad he was hurt a year ago and they won a championship.”
Wade, 31, was hobbled during Miami’s championship run last spring and wasn’t called upon to carry the Heat in any of their conference finals or Finals games. LeBron took care of it. You have to go all the way back to Games 4-6 of Miami’s second-round series against the Pacers to find a playoff stretch when Wade looked like Wade.
The pinnacle was a 41-point, 10-rebound performance in the series-clinching sixth game at Indiana, the kind of Wade masterwork that seems like a piece of history, a relic.
“His pain threshold’s extremely high, and that’s one of the reasons he’s such a great player but also such a winner,” Crean said.
Wade’s injury is the most glaring vulnerability for a Heat team that won 27 straight games this season -- a defending champion that otherwise shouldn’t be concerned about whoever comes out of the Knicks-Pacers series in the East. But every time Wade winces and grabs his knee, the Pacers and Knicks should be emboldened about the puncher’s chance they’d have in the conference finals. Everyone’s been watching Kevin Durant try to win playoff games without Russell Westbrook, right?
“I look at it differently,” Crean said. “I look at it from the point of view that they have so many guys that can play at such a high level that their balance may not always be in how they score, but in how they share the ball. This is one of the great teams in history of making the next pass, looking for each other, playing off dribble-penetration, finding cuts -- not to mention how engaged they are defensively with one another. When you have the kind of ball movement that they have, I don’t know that it comes down to one or two guys having to carry the load night in and night out.”
But the Heat needed James and Wade to carry them out of the Pacers series last spring, and there’s no reason to believe it will be different this time.
“Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn’t,” Wade said. “And you can’t predict it. … In certain games you might do something and the shooting pain might come back. This is the first time y’all were able to see it. Other times I’ve been able to not show you all.”
Against the Bulls, who are going down without Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, the Heat have more than enough without Wade. Against the Pacers or Knicks? Against the Spurs, Warriors or Grizzlies? They’re going to need him.
“He’s not one of those guys who’s going to do less [work],” Crean said. “He does more. With it being such a long haul, he knows he’s going to have to deal with it accordingly.”
More than anyone, it was Wade who sacrificed his game and allowed James to flourish on the way to their first championship together. But what we’re seeing now is not sacrifice, not unselfishness, but a great player breaking down and not being able to rely on his body.
The bigger question is whether the Heat will be able to rely on Wade when they need him.