MIAMI (AP) — This is why Dwyane Wade rested.
This is why the Miami Heat opted to go without their longtime franchise player for so many nights this season, why teammates hoped their frustrations about playing without him for 28 regular-season games would ultimately be rewarded, why he often seemed more comfortable in a suit than a uniform.
News flash: The regular season didn’t mean all that much to Wade and the Heat.
Everything about the Miami franchise revolves around chasing more titles, and Wade is doing his part. He and the two-time defending NBA champion Heat will take a 2-1 series lead over the Indiana Pacers into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night, and Wade — who is playing without any significant injury issues at this point of the season for the first time in years — is looking as good as he has in months.
“I’m in the groove and the flow that I want to be in, and also understanding that the game of basketball is tricky,” Wade said. “You can get out of it in a second, and you’ve got to figure out a way still to compete and help your teammates win.”
True, but that groove he’s in is a pretty good one.
Here’s how good he’s been in the fourth quarters of these East finals: Wade has as many field goals in those three final periods — 13 — as any other two players in the series combined to this point. He’s shooting 72 percent in fourth quarters in this series, including a 6-for-7 effort in the last 12 minutes of Game 1 and a 5-for-5 showing in the final period of Game 2.
“We’ve got to make him a little bit more uncomfortable than he is,” Pacers forward David West said. “He’s just playing the game at way too high of a comfort level in terms of we’re just not putting enough pressure on him. All the guys on the floor need to guard him and get him out of his comfort zone. He’s really lining his shots up, taking his time, which we can’t allow.
“He just can’t be as comfortable as he’s been.”
That sounds like things opponents were saying about Wade before the summer of 2010, when he helped lure LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami and formed the core of a team that is two wins from a fourth straight East title.
But after hearing plenty of talk in recent years that his game isn’t so much declining as it is freefalling, Wade seems to be reveling in the reminders that, yes, he can still be among the elite players in the NBA.
The show Wade is putting on is so good right now that James wouldn’t even leave to get some much-needed treatment for a hamstring cramp late in the third quarter of Game 3 until seeing what the 2006 NBA Finals MVP was going to do on Miami’s final possession of the period. Wade wound up connecting on a 3-pointer, after which James immediately hobbled off, basically unable to work one of his legs.
Worth it, James said.
“That’s what our team is built for,” James said. “When one of the guys goes out, we’re able to still hold the fort. It’s great to see the way he closed out the quarter. The way he’s been playing in the conference finals. We need it all.”
James never really hid his frustration about playing without Wade, though it never rose to the level of any obvious locker-room rancor, either. Whether they liked it or not, the Heat understood the plan for Wade and why it was crucial to preserve his balky knees with hopes that he would be at his best for the biggest time of the year.
So far, so good.
And Wade’s confidence — which wasn’t perfect after he had to miss nine games late in the regular season because of a hamstring injury, an absence not related to the maintenance plan — is as high now as it’s been all season.
“You need it, no question about it. We all do,” Wade said. “So for me, the first round was me just kind of trying to get my footing a little bit, trying to do some of the things that I was capable of doing, trying to see if I could do it. Then the second round came a little more and then the third round. Like I said, ideally for me, missing the last 2
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