SAN ANTONIO — Dwyane Wade had to accept a lesser role in Miami in order to let LeBron James reach his highest heights, but he never wanted to be viewed as a backup singer or sidekick, even in his diminished physical state.
He once owned the NBA Finals seven years ago, a one-man wrecking crew carrying his aging teammates to a stunning title. But Wade had spent this postseason hobbling instead of hurdling defenders and grimacing instead of giving his opponent angry glares after crushing dunks. The Miami Heat waited all postseason to see the Wade of old rather than the old Wade, and he arrived at its most desperate time, scoring 32 points with six steals to lead his team to a 109-93 win over the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center that evened the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
Most of the focus entering the game was how James would rebound from a rough start in this series, but Wade freed the four-time most valuable player from the burden of carrying the Heat all alone. James still led all scorers with 33, but he collected a few against the Spurs’ reserves in the fourth quarter after Wade — who has been hampered by a bone bruise in his right knee for the past few months — already had wrapped up his first 30-point playoff game in more than a year. Center Chris Bosh also came along for the ride with 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots.
“He was ’06 Flash,” James said of Wade, “and we needed every bit of it.”
Said Wade with a laugh: “I didn’t feel like 2006, but it felt good. I needed a game like this, but my teammates needed me to have a game like this.”
It was the first time this postseason that James, Wade and Bosh each scored at least 20 points in the same game, and the 85-point effort from the all-star trio ensured the series will head back to Miami. The Heat still hasn’t lost consecutive games since mid-January.
“It was on our shoulders,” James said. “We had to figure out to will a game for us, to play at the highest level. When all three of us are clicking at the same time, we’re a very tough team to beat.”
The Spurs’ three stars of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for just 40 points — an improvement from Game 3, when they only had 25 — but San Antonio was unable to get repeat performances from Danny Green and Gary Neal. After combining for 13 three-pointers and 51 points in San Antonio’s 113-77 shellacking of Miami two nights before, Green and Neal combined for just six three-pointers and 23 points for an encore.
“We understood adjustments were going to be made,” Duncan said. “They’re not going to let them run free and get as many shots off as they did in the game before that for obvious reasons. We just didn’t make enough plays. They played better than us.”
Parker’s availability was in question before the game as he dealt with a slight strain of his right hamstring, but he didn’t appear to have any problems early on, scoring or assisting on 12 of the Spurs’ first 15 points. But after scoring 15 points in the first half, Parker was held scoreless the rest of the way. He was unable to get into the lane, and the Spurs had fewer open looks. Duncan led the Spurs with 20 points.
“Miami did a great job on him,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said of Parker, who had three of the team’s 18 turnovers. “They doubled. They got it out of his hands, and other people had to play.”
Center Tiago Splitter made two free throws to bring the Spurs within 86-81, but Wade took over from there, scoring the next six points for the Heat and then finding Bosh for a layup to give Miami a 94-83 lead. After making a floater in the lane to start the sequence, Wade intercepted a pass Green intended for Ginobili, darted up the floor and whirled the ball over Neal’s head before throwing down a one-handed jam. The dunk got James up out of his seat to high-five his teammates on the bench as Wade huffed and puffed his way down the court.
“That was a little vintage right there,” Wade said.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra made the first major adjustment of the series when he benched Udonis Haslem in favor of sharpshooter Mike Miller, hoping Miller could create the spacing needed to let James and Wade operate.
The move didn’t pay any immediate dividends. Parker found Kawhi Leonard in the left corner for a three-pointer that gave San Antonio a 15-5 lead with 7:10 left in the first period, forcing Spoelstra to call a timeout. When the Heat emerged from the huddle, James and Wade came out more assertive, and the defense clamped down. Miami forced three turnovers and outscored San Antonio, 24-11, the rest of the period.
James guaranteed he would be better after being held below 20 points in three consecutive games for the first time since his humiliating performance in the 2011 Finals against Dallas. With the Spurs missing shots and turning the ball over, James got out on the break and attacked the basket like a locomotive, collecting some easy buckets until he had the confidence to pull up from the perimeter. After scoring just 15 points in Game 3, James had 11 after the first period and matched that total by halftime.
But unlike previous games in this series, Wade also was aggressive and made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. Wade scored 14 points in the first half and also recorded a block on Splitter. He gave the Heat a 41-31 lead with a driving layup, but the Spurs answered with an 11-2 run sparked by reserve Boris Diaw. Diaw made two free throws and a three-pointer and later tied the game at 49 with a layup.
Bosh tried to answer with a dunk, but it came after time expired. Wade and James made sure it didn’t matter.
“That’s what great players do,” Parker said. “They show up in big games.”