PHILADELPHIA -- It was a very different Dwyane Wade on the floor for the Miami Heat on Thursday night, the one who can and will take over a game with his relentless attacking and aggression. This D-Wade scored at will, rebounded with ferocity, and even found the time to lead his team in assists.
The real D-Wade stood up in Game 3, leading the Heat to the brink of the conference semifinals with a 100-94 victory over the 76ers to grab a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. The Wade whose world descended into darkness with the pain and desperation of migraine headaches earlier in the series was nowhere to be found. And that is good for the Heat, but also scary.
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The Heat have seen it all during this season of vitriol and undue expectations. They've game-planned for every possible wrinkle, treated the usual and predictable bumps and bruises that come with the grind of an 82-game season and what they expect will be a two-month playoff journey. But as they pushed the feisty Sixers to the doorstep of elimination Thursday night, they also were forced to confront the one thing they can't possibly anticipate: the great unknown of migraines hiding within Wade's superhero body.
"You just enjoy the days you don't have them," said Wade, who erupted for 32 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists after totaling 31 points in the first two games of the series. "I just enjoy these days and hopefully I don't have an episode any time soon."
Every championship contender has its albatross. The Celtics have Shaquille O'Neal, not knowing if he'll play or even if they'll be better if he does. The Lakers have Andrew Bynum, who is always one puddle of sweat on the floor away from catastrophe. Not to jinx them, but the Bulls have Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, who both missed huge chunks of the season with injuries.
But those are all injuries with a beginning and an end, a part of the game that is expected, though not welcome. Wade, who missed a game in January with migraines and was incapacitated for 36 hours during his latest episode, has an affliction that can't be predicted or prevented. It is the dark, unseen corner of the Heat's drive for a championship under the brightest of glares.
"There's times when I feel like one might be coming on, or the lights might be too bright," Wade said. "We have some things back in Miami when I get back that I'll try and we'll go from there."
The Wade who showed up early for Game 3 on Thursday, putting up shots and feeling relaxed and clear-minded, was an entirely different specimen than the one who hoisted only 24 shots in the first two games, missed 14 of them, and generally just tried to stay out of the way –- especially in Game 2, when he had five turnovers to go with his 14 points. The difference was staggering. Wade's energy and aggressiveness were exactly what the Heat needed on a night when Doug Collins' Sixers hit Miami with pace, energy, and everything they could handle.
"His aggressive mentality was something that kept us in it," coach Erik Spoelstra said.
With a closeout game on the road Sunday, the Heat have reached the next hurdle of their first postseason run together. This is the time in the playoffs when the life must be drained from a pesky underdog, yielding the benefits of rest and extra preparation for the next leg in the journey.
In some ways, Thursday night provided all the frightening proof you needed that Pat Riley's superstar concoction will be every bit as imposing as you imagined back in July. The early-season struggles, when Wade and LeBron James played together like perfect strangers, are a distant memory. James often speaks of a time when he threw a back-door pass when Wade was cutting to the 3-point line, or vice versa. On Thursday night, they were in such harmony that James was able to find Wade for a dunk while dribbling himself into a 260-pound heap on the floor.
"Night and day," said James, who had 24 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists, none more impressive than that improbable dish to Wade. "I remember the first game in Boston when I had seven turnovers or eight turnovers. Maybe it was nine. ... It took time. It took practices. It took games. It took struggles. It took going 9-8 for us to realize that we just needed to play our games and just be who we are as individuals. And as soon as we did that, we started going off one another and just reacting to each other's play. ... I think our comfort level is at an all-time high."
It helps when, as Collins pointed out, the Heat's Big Three combine for more than 120 collective minutes of court time and get called for two personal fouls. It helps, too, when Zydrunas Ilgauskas uses what Chris Bosh described as his 2-inch vertical leap to corral eight of Miami's 20 offensive rebounds.
It helps, above all, when Wade is Wade –- when he's healthy, clear-eyed and symptom free. The specter of another migraine on the eve of a pivotal Game 5 against Boston or Chicago should be far more troubling to the Heat than Wade getting hit on his surgically repaired shoulder –- as he did Thursday night, causing barely a whisper of concern.
"He's 222 pounds with six percent body fat," Spoelstra said. "He can absorb probably more contact than most."
But a migraine headache like those that have stricken Wade this season can take down any man, no matter how well conditioned or muscle-bound.
"I felt a lot better," Wade said. "My game felt better, my body felt better, and I think my teammates could see it. I was here early, getting shots, ready to go. I was looking forward to it because the first two games I wasn't myself."
The Heat don't have much more to worry about in this series, other than making sure they're flying to Miami on Sunday night to rest and not to play a fifth game. As has always been the case with them since they crowned themselves champions in July, the bigger challenges are ahead.
Some of those can be predicted and planned for in the meticulous and impressive way Spoelstra has approached the entire season. Who's going to keep Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo out of the paint? Will Wade and LeBron be as connected on the final possession of a Game 6 in Boston in May as they were in a Game 3 in Philadelphia in April?
As for when Wade's next migraine will hit, and how long it will incapacitate him, the Heat find themselves at the cruel whim of the worst kind of opponent. The kind for which there is no game plan.