OKLAHOMA CITY — About 18 months after LeBron James made “The Decision,” Dwyane Wade offered “The Concession.” Banged up and watching James lead the Miami Heat to wins in his absence, Wade decided in January that he needed to step aside so that James could be the unquestioned leader of the team.
By handing over the reins of the Heat, his team for so long, Wade thought he was being selfless and making the ultimate sacrifice, to help James find comfort and make Miami a more viable championship contender. James went on to claim his third most valuable player award, and first outside of Cleveland. James repeatedly talks about being “at ease” in this third trip to the NBA Finals, and he led Miami with 30 points in Miami’s 105-94 loss in Game 1 on Tuesday.
Wade, on the other hand, continued his confounding and uneven play this postseason. He appeared lost and flustered against the Oklahoma City Thunder, unable to find spots for scene-stealing moments in the James Show. Wade missed 12 of his 19 shots and scored an inconsequential 19 points.
“I’m a winner, so I’m just going to do whatever I can to help my team,” Wade said after the game. “Just doing whatever it takes to win the ball game, not necessarily sitting up here worrying about scoring 30 points.”
The duel between Kevin Durant and James is at the forefront of the NBA Finals, but Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is fighting for a spot on the marquee as well – and the Heat need Wade to do the same if they are going to have any chance of defeating Oklahoma City.
James’s supernova aura certainly dwarfs most other stars in his presence, but that doesn’t mean that Wade needs to fade away. James acknowledged that Wade’s passing of the proverbial baton went a long way toward helping him, but James added that he has had to flip the conversation a few times since then to remind Wade that he still needs him to play at an elite level.
“A lot of times, I try to let him figure out on his own, but sometimes I go to him and tell him I need one of those games from him. I need one of those performances from him because he still has it, too,” James said. “Every player needs a little kick every now and then, no matter how tested they are. I try to continue to let him know how important he is to this team, which he should know, but he also needs to be D. Wade and not worry about deferring as much.”
Wade’s decision to defer was bold and startling, since he was the unquestioned leader of the Heat for nearly seven years – except for the period between Shaquille O’Neal’s arrival and the Heat’s first title two years later in 2006. His name remains the last called during introductions at American Airlines Arena and some fans still refer to Dade County as Wade County. The downside of the compromise was that it actually put more pressure on James to deliver — especially if Wade can’t find his way.
“That’s the hardest part about playing with another guy with that capability; it’s just trying to figure out when to defer and when not to defer,” Wade said. “I’ve played with Shaq before. I’ve played with a dominant player, and I knew when to defer and when not to defer. It’s kind of a read-all game a little bit, and I think with me and LeBron, we continue to talk about it and discuss what we feel is the opportunities for that.”
Westbrook and Durant have found a rhythm in playing off each other in their four years together, though Westbrook admitted that there are still games when it’s “frustrating.” James said striking a balance of knowing when to go and when to get out of the way is “nowhere near close to last year,” when he and Wade seemed to step on each other’s toes on an almost a weekly basis. But Wade also isn’t the same player he was a year ago.
He has been dealing with problems in his left knee, which may be more severe than he has led on. Wade had it drained during the second round of Miami’s second-round series against Indiana and followed with three games that reminded observers of the player who was Finals MVP six years ago. But in the conference finals against Boston, Wade struggled at times, opening himself up for more questions about his lack of acceleration and lift — before delivering in Game 7.
Wade never made the necessary adjustments to change alter his game from the slashing finisher who absorbed punishment and came back for more, especially since he now finds himself on the wrong side of 30.
“I’m not that athletic, I’ll tell you that, as I was in ’06, but I still have something in me. I still have some left in me. I wish it was possible to stay at that same athleticism as I was at 24, but that’s not possible,” Wade said, before mentioning that there will be a time when he won’t be able to bounce back from a subpar performance. “One day it’ll happen. Father Time will knock on the door and tap me on the shoulder, but not right now.”