MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade was having arguably the worst series of his playoff career. He couldn't make shots, he couldn't get to the basket, and even when he did he seemed to find a lot of ways to screw up those opportunities. Over the past year, Wade has gone from "the real star and leader of the Heat" to the reason the potential dynasty could crumble and send LeBron James packing his bags for greener win columns.
Wade has been dealing with a knee injury that has taken his explosiveness out of his game, and the problem with that for Wade is he doesn't have one of those traditional "old man games" that you see veterans seek out as they need more craftiness at their disposal. He needed to find a way to be aggressive while not being reckless against a great defensive unit. That's exactly what he did as the Heat tried to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
It started early for the Heat in trying to get Dwyane Wade involved getting him into a rhythm.
"The first play of the game I called a play for D-Wade," LeBron James said after the Heat's 99-76 win. "Even though he didn't shoot the ball, he got a touch in the paint. Just to make him feel like he was a part of the offense, make him feel in a good rhythm. I called a couple of sets for him early in the game, just to get a feel for it.
And it showed throughout the whole game that he was in rhythm. He started to make lay-ups, he started to attack, he started to make his free throws."
For Wade, four of his first five shots were going toward the basket, something he hadn't been doing as much as you'd expect from him in this series. That was the key to getting him into the mindset of what the Heat needed him to do to secure the Game 7 victory. Get him moving toward the basket, where he's often so deadly. But to get him moving the way he used to, Wade needed treatment on his knee.
To prepare for this game and try to get himself right, Wade had been receiving treatment on his knee into the "wee hours of the morning" as he put it. He wanted to be in the best shape possible to give his team what they needed from him.
"I'm playing basketball," Wade said. "I will continue to do whatever I need to do, and how my body feels from day to day to try to help my team win a championship, that's all it's about. It doesn't matter."
His ability to play through injuries is what could be the difference between repeating as NBA champions and falling to their opponents in a playoff series. That's nearly what happened in the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers. He wasn't able to contribute like the game plan asks for and it cost the team plenty of times in key moments throughout this series. But going through adversity is not something foreign to Wade; it's something he's dealt with many times.
"I'm going to play through pain because this is my job," Wade said. "My team depends on me. Like I said a couple of series ago, I would love to be one of the players who never has to deal with these conversations, never have to deal with these injuries. But that's not my path.
I've been through so much away from the game and in the game that I'll find a way. I'll figure it out. Some way, somehow, you give me enough time, I'll figure it out. That's what I was able to do tonight."
A big key for Wade was LeBron's willingness to be the primary defender on Paul George early and give his All-Star teammate some relief that could lead to extra effectiveness on the offensive end of the court. It allowed Wade to get out in transition more often, which led to his best move of the playoffs in the open court against Lance Stephenson.
That's the Dwyane Wade we're used to seeing. The explosiveness. The craftiness. The ability to create points to demoralize an opponent. Not having to defend the Pacers' best perimeter player helped this happen more often than it did in the previous games.
"Most of the defensive matchups that myself and LeBron take, we kind of talk it out," Wade explained. "We talk in the shoot around today in making a change. He starts out on Paul George because they wanted me to be more aggressive early in the game offensively, to look for opportunities. So I was able to do that."
That may be the key to Wade performing at levels like this. LeBron may have to take more of the defensive responsibility early in games to let Wade freelance on defense and get out in the open court. Because when Wade is moving to the basket with space to operate, he showed he's still a big problem. Get him moving to the basket early and you might end up with him crashing the offensive boards like he did to give him six offensive rebounds in a game the Heat won on the boards.
It was the first game of the series in which the Heat beat the Pacers in the rebounding department.
When everybody (including myself) thought it was foolish for Dwyane Wade to demand more responsibility in where his team was going following the Game 6 loss, Wade adjusted his body and his mindset to attain the team's goal.
"That's just Dwyane being who he is," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said in his postgame press conference. "He has an uncanny way. All of us have seen him over the years. When you count him out and you need him most, the competition is at its fiercest moment, he's going to be there for you. And he's going to somehow find a way to impact the game."