MIAMI — Dwyane Wade paused as he answered a question and looked back over his shoulder, somewhat befuddled after a loud scream emanated from behind the NBA Finals banner hanging as the backdrop. Wade quickly surmised the source of the commotion, which was revealed when LeBron James walked up the stairs to the lectern and playfully demanded that his teammate hurry up and finish.
James disappeared behind a curtain but returned to the stage moments later, equipped with a camera to record Wade’s exit. The light-hearted exchange belied the urgency surrounding the Miami Heat, down 1-0 in this best-of-seven series entering Game 2 on Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But it also subtly revealed James’s comfort level in Miami, where he has no problem interrupting Wade at a news conference or bluntly challenging him — even as Wade attempts to pick his spots through a nagging bone bruise in his right knee — to play better.
“What I tell D. Wade is, when he’s most in tune with the game, I can see it on his face,” James said Saturday. “For me, as one of the leaders of the team . . . I have to do my part, I guess, to get that face. When his energy level is high, his motor is going and he looks like he’s in tune, we’re a really, really powerful team.”
In his first trip to the Finals with Miami, James was often overly deferential to Wade, which led to a bizarre disappearance in a six-game loss to Dallas. Last season, Wade moved aside for the good of the team and his own self-preservation, which allowed James to dominate Oklahoma City and claim his first title. This time around, James faces a different dilemma.
The Heat is clearly his team, with the burden of winning and losing mostly resting on his shoulders. But the four-time MVP has to strike the dicey balance between looking for his own scoring opportunities while continuing to trust a struggling, and perhaps diminished, supporting cast. James had 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in the Heat’s 92-88 loss in Game 1 but he was well aware of the reaction afterward — especially after he took four shots and scored just six points in the fourth quarter.
“I should have done more, right?” James asked, sarcastically. “I can’t get involved in that, honestly, because I’ve done more and lost before. I mean, when I was in Cleveland, we played Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals and I think I averaged 38, 36 or whatever I averaged [he actually averaged 39 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the six-game defeat]. I guess I should’ve done more in that series as well. But I can’t.”
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich devised a plan to make James’s teammates beat them in Game 1, sending two or three players and forcing him to give up the ball. James didn’t attempt to force anything since the Spurs swept his Cavaliers the last time he tried to win a championship on his own.
James left Cleveland for better talent in Miami, but now the 31-year-old Wade is hobbling as he provides only bursts of production and Chris Bosh appears lost in an offense that has turned him into being primarily a long-distance jump shooter.
Wade and Bosh hung out at Bosh’s home the night before Game 7 against Indiana to discuss what they needed to do to be more assertive and productive going forward. Wade said the two teammates and neighbors were “showing brotherhood” and reflecting on their importance to the success of the team. But Wade also admitted that he cannot predict how his body will respond until he steps on the court.
“A couple of nights I got out before the game, I thought ‘Oh yeah, this is my night,’ ” Wade said. “I got out there and it was, ‘Oh no, it’s not.’ It’s one of those things, like I said, it’s from quarter to quarter.”
The increased load has started to wear on James, who took a rare breather at the start of the fourth quarter of Game 1, signaling that fatigue had begun to set in through a grueling run of non-stop basketball. He followed up that first championship with an Olympic gold medal last summer in London — Wade and Bosh both sat out — and has played 93 games, including the playoffs, this season.
“It’s a toll for myself to go through what I’ve been through the last 21 / 2 years, but I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed to be a part of three Finals. I’ve been blessed to be a part of a great Olympic team and play basketball, the game I love,” James said. “I would love to have rest, but not at this time of the year. I wouldn’t substitute sitting down in my house right now watching the Finals.”
Miami has lost the first game of a playoff series three times since James, Wade and Bosh came together and the Heat has gone on to win the next four games each time. Wade’s two championships have actually come after losing the first game of the Finals; the Heat actually beat Dallas in Game 1 before losing two years ago.
“That history repeats itself hopefully thing, that would be great,” Wade said. “But right now we have to figure out how to make the adjustments to win Game 2. We’re playing against a very, very good team. Very intelligent, smart team.
“And we have to break the code. We have to crack the code. And figure out how to be more effective, you know, in Game 2 than we were in Game 1.”
When asked what he expected from his teammates Sunday, James said simply: “I expect them to suit up and be on the floor ready for a game. That’s what I expect from them.”