|Wade's aggressive style of play continues to take a toll on his body. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- With his left foot taped, Dwyane Wade reported to an exam room in Staples Center for an X-ray, then went to the court for some cutting and running to test it out. He decided to play. It didn't go well. He'll do the same thing less than 24 hours later in Denver.
So it goes for Wade, who sat out the Olympics to have knee surgery and get his health right, only to walk into a buzzsaw of nagging injuries in the early days of the 2012-13 season. There has been so much chaos in Los Angeles with the Lakers -- not to mention in Boston with the Celtics and Chicago as the Bulls press on without Derrick Rose -- that you may not have noticed the defending champions limping through these first few weeks of their title defense.
Limping right along with Wade.
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"As he recovered from the knee surgery in the offseason, he's sprained his ankle, hurt his foot and jammed his finger," teammate LeBron James said Wednesday night, after the Clippers dismantled the Heat 107-100. "He's going to have to try to get healthy because I know that it's affecting his play on the floor and I know he wants to play at the highest level, and he's capable of doing that when he's healthy. His health right now ... as his knee is getting better, he's banging up other things."
After landing on Chris Bosh's foot in the third quarter Monday night in Houston, Wade stayed in the background as James took over with one of his ridiculous performances to lift Miami past the Rockets. Two nights later, Wade went 2-for-10 against the Clippers. More memorable than the assortment of missed jumpers and floaters was Wade getting blocked spectacularly on a dunk attempt by a high-flying Eric Bledsoe -- the block of the year, dare I say.
The Heat are 6-3 heading into a nationally televised visit to Denver -- more about such visits later -- and their mini-slump, if you can call it that, is a far cry from the panic-inspiring 9-8 start when their Big Three first came together in 2010-11. The Heat weathered that storm, and have survived many smaller weather events since. They'll gather themselves this time, too.
But what of Wade? Suddenly, inexplicably, it's his 10th season already. He'll be 31 in January, by which time this underwhelming road trip will be forgotten. His smash-mouth style of play is not conducive to an iron-man career, and we've all known it -- including the teams that foolishly decided not to draft him for fear he'd always be breaking down. With a knee that hasn't fully regained its strength and injuries popping up all over -- "a myriad of minor things," coach Erik Spoelstra said -- Wade has unwittingly become Exhibit A for just how important he is to the Heat's success.
In the time since Wade lured James and Bosh to play with him in Miami, the opposition hasn't sat idly by to enjoy the dynasty in the making. The Celtics are different, and not better at the moment. The Bulls have much bigger problems than both with Rose out until sometime after the All-Star break, although he has designs on a much earlier return. But other than that, the competition has become more fierce. The Lakers have Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and are too talented to be this bad no matter who is coaching them. The Spurs haven't stopped being the Spurs. The Thunder are hungry to avenge last season's loss to Miami in the Finals.
In other words, the Heat's talent isn't so overwhelmingly superior anymore that they can afford an injury-plagued, and/or sub-par season from Wade. They're going to need him to defend this championship that everyone is trying to take away.
"Everybody is using every game as a test against us to see where they are," Wade said.
The Heat ran into one such team Wednesday night in the Clippers, who are just as athletic as the Heat, not to mention deeper, and have a fighting chance to come out of the West and perhaps meet Miami again in the Finals.
"We view them as legitimate contenders for the title," Spoelstra said.
It's one of the reasons Wade decided to go Wednesday night, a decision that could lead to a different one Thursday night on this quick turnaround in Denver.
"Some nights you have to try to tough it out and go do it," Wade said.
Thursday, he said, may not be one of those nights. He'll be a game-time decision again in the only arena in the NBA where he has not won in his 10-year career. Miami has lost nine straight games in Denver since Wade's rookie season in 2003-04.
Four of those games have happened like this, on the second night of a back-to-back. Five have come with the Heat traveling from California and losing an hour, getting to the team hotel in the 4-5 a.m. range. Six have been lost by 10 or more points and were essentially over after the first quarter.
And while going 2--2 so far on their longest road trip of the season (six games in nine days) is nothing to push the panic button over, the Heat have significant issues other than Wade's health. Well, minor issues compared to the Lakers starting 1-4 and firing their coach, but significant issues for them.
Five times in nine games, the Heat uncharacteristically have allowed more than 100 points. (Another time they allowed 99.) They entered the Clippers game with the seventh-worst defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league at 104.1. They're third-worst in the NBA in opponent 3-point percentage (.385) and have allowed 19, 14 and 10 3-pointers in their three losses -- plus 12 Monday night in a win over the Rockets.
It's blissfully early, but the cause of these defensive woes can be traced to the Heat's decision to play small with Bosh starting at center and the team's best defensive big, Joel Anthony, hardly playing at all. The book against the Heat is to penetrate, get into the lane, force the defense to collapse, kick the ball out to any number of open shooters and make them pay. Shane Battier, defensive mastermind, assigns some of the blame to shoddy pick-and-roll coverage, which is something that can be fixed. But the need to help Bosh and Battier defend bigger opponents around the basket, which makes closing out on jump shooters problematic, cannot be corrected so easily with the lineups Miami is using.
"If you had your choice, you'd definitely want to keep guys out of the lane, that's for sure," Bosh said. "Yeah, once that defense gets collapsed, it's difficult to close out to the 3-point shooters. Guys are clever; they're catching and going. Once guys get in that paint, it's kind of an all-bets-are-off kind of thing. We have to get it right, but we'll figure it out. We're a smart bunch. We're tough, we're resilient, all that good stuff. We'll be fine."
Probably so. And there's so much drama going on elsewhere that by the time they get it right, hardly anyone will remember that anything was wrong in the first place.
"Everybody gets their ass kicked every now and then," Bosh said. "We have to limit that."
They've done it before and almost certainly will do it again. Even if they have to carry Wade along for the ride.