Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade rejoined his team in Washington yesterday for a visit to the White House, where the all-star guard and his teammates shook hands and took pictures with President Bush at a ceremony honoring the defending NBA champions. Wade, wearing a protective harness on his dislocated left shoulder, was dressed in black -- an appropriate symbol for those who wish to bury the Heat.
Eulogies have been written about the Heat since Wade reached in for a steal against Houston's Shane Battier last week and his arm popped backward. Wade was in so much pain that he was taken off the court in a wheelchair, but Heat players said he didn't take their postseason chances -- let alone title hopes -- with him. "That's nonsense. We're making the playoffs," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said as Miami prepared to face the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center tonight.
Wade went home after the White House visit to receive a second medical opinion, which should determine whether or not he elects to have season-ending surgery.
"That's a decision that is still being pondered," Wade, the league's fourth-leading scorer at 28.8 points, said yesterday. "It's also an opportunity . . . where I could opt for the rehab and the therapy and get it stronger and be able to make a return by end of the season. That's why I'm getting another opinion, so I can hear more things."
At the time of Wade's injury, the Heat had won seven of eight games, Shaquille O'Neal had begun to return to form after missing 33 games with a knee injury and Coach Pat Riley had returned after missing 22 games after having hip-replacement surgery in January
"That's what's so funny," Haslem said. "Before Dwyane went out, everybody was saying: 'Miami's on the rise. It's going to be Detroit and Miami in the Eastern Conference finals.' Now it's, 'Miami ain't going to make the playoffs.'
"Dwyane is a great player but he doesn't do it by himself. Everybody contributes on this team. We know we have enough in this locker room to stay competitive and try to win games."
Although the Heat is just 2-8 without Wade this season, O'Neal said the team is still gunning for the Southeast Division title. Entering last night, the Heat trailed the Wizards by five games in the division, but it also was two games from being in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. "We want to get one of those four home-court advantage spots," O'Neal said. "The good thing about this conference is we're only three, four games out. So it's still room for us to make it."
O'Neal is averaging 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in the past three games without Wade, but Riley said the Heat will have to rely on its defense -- not O'Neal alone -- to replace Wade's production. The Heat beat Cleveland on Sunday playing a grind-it-out, defensive style that Riley popularized in New York and in his early days in Miami. "If we can't defensively clamp down, then we'll have a hard time," Riley said this week.
Besides O'Neal, the Heat has other players with past all-star credentials -- but there is no machine to turn back the clock for Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, Antoine Walker and Eddie Jones. "They always focus on age and all that stuff, but most guys on this team have been leaders. They've done a lot of things in their careers. So we've got to depend on each other," Payton said. "People fail to realize. All of us can play."
The Heat also hopes that a light schedule the remainder of the season can work in its favor. Fifteen of Miami's final 26 games are at home and it has just three back-to-back games, which should help a roster that includes seven players age 30 or older. The Heat also has only four games against the Western Conference.
The Wizards have eight sets of back-to-back games and 15 of their final 27 games are on the road, including a five-game Western Conference trip in late March. "After Washington, we do have a favorable schedule. Whether or not we'll take advantage of that, [time] will tell," said Riley, who added that the fight for positioning in the East could be "one of the more interesting races ever."
But for now, the Heat will have to continue without its best player.
"I'm feeling as good as I can feel," Wade said. "My spirits are high and that's the main thing. Of course I'm not feeling good because I'm not on the court and I'm not playing with my teammates, but my spirits are high and I know that everything in life happens for a reason, so I will find out what this reason is soon."