A superstar player will make his triumphant return from a knee injury for Wednesday’s clash between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat—but don’t get your hopes up, Windy City natives, it’s not Derrick Rose.
The 31-year-old guard has been out of the lineup since a March 22 victory over the Pistons, missing Miami’s wins over the Bobcats and Magic. Those victories took the Heat’s winning streak to 27 games, just six away from the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time record.
Chicago has long been one of the teams considered “most likely” to end Miami’s historic run. The Bulls have a ton of injury problems, but they're a tough-minded team that’s given the Heat problems in the past. They are also the first playoff-bound team the Heat have played in nine days.
So it’s probably not a coincidence that Wade decided Wednesday was the night to make his return. That said, Wade made sure to indicate to reporters that his return to the lineup did not mean he was 100 percent (via ESPN):
I'm going to give it a go. I had two situations that I was dealing with and one of them is gone. The other one [knee], I'm still dealing with and it's not going to go away today. So I'll get back out there to play and see how it feels.
The message from Wade was pretty clear. He’s probably not going to get much better than how he feels now, and with everyone in South Beach knowing history is on the line, Wednesday is as good of a time as ever. Miami has become understandably excited, with LeBron James and Co. relishing every step closer they get to Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.
What the Heat have to do—specifically the coaching staff—is understand being “in the moment” does not mean pushing the limits. Wade played at 75 percent (at best) last season during the playoffs due to a knee injury, and the result was LeBron carrying a burden that was only a little short of Herculean.
Certainly, that was part of the reason Wade sat out versus Charlotte and Orlando. Getting those five days of rest was critical, and the Heat should beat those squads 99 times out of 100.
However, with Wade returning at one of the apexes of Miami’s schedule—on national television versus one of the most storied franchises in the league—the team runs the risk of “too much, too soon.” With the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage at virtual lock status, the only reason for Wade to return on Wednesday is to keep the streak alive.
That’s an understandable goal. But it’s also one that could be too risky in the long term.
Once a player reaches Wade’s level, the minutes decision is not the franchise’s or Erik Spoelstra’s alone. It's a collaborative resolution, where each side has to recognize the long-term implications of pushing too hard. Wade has to know when his body has taken enough punishment.
That’s certainly not to say the Heat or Spoelstra abdicate responsibility. There has always been some merit to the “save the player from himself” argument, which is why so many get appalled when players like Robert Griffin III are left in the game “too long.”
Spoelstra bears the responsibility of knowing his player’s tendencies, and the organization must keep its coach mindful of the long-term goal—even if it’s an unnecessary warning.
The handling of Wade’s injury thus far has been commendable. Miami is in the midst of a historic win streak, one that everyone on the big blue marble knows will eventually put them on the “all-time great” list. To risk losing that streak by sitting your second-best player is a move that many organizations would not make—even against bottom-feeders like Charlotte and Orlando.
Even in the past two games Wade played in—when he started showing signs the injury was bothering him—the Heat players and Spoelstra made some subtle adjustments.
In the first half versus Cleveland last Wednesday, Wade ran five different possessions where he finished out of a pick-and-roll. Anyone who has watched the Heat play knows that’s perfectly within the norm.
For the season, Wade uses—meaning the possession ends in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws—a possession 27.4 percent of the time as a ball-handler, per Synergy Sports. That’s easily the highest rate among Heat players and more than double their season average as a team. Wade is among the league’s best as a pick-and-roll finisher, ranking 18th in the league at 0.91 points per possession, which is astounding considering his high usage.
However, after that first-half barrage of pick-and-roll finishes, Wade went radio silent on the front.
He finished just one more play as a pick-and-roll ball-handler versus Cleveland—a missed two-point jumper with less than a minute remaining. Wade then went an entire game against the Pistons two nights later and attempted 17 shots, just one of which came as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
It’s a two-game sample size, but it’s not a coincidence that Wade was “suddenly” out of the lineup after Miami’s clash with Detroit. Utilizing pick-and-rolls puts a ton of pressure on the lower body, because it involves starting and stopping via hesitations—something Wade would ostensibly have trouble doing with a knee injury.
He was a different, less effective player who could not explode off the dribble the way he usually does. Those games were the first in which Wade had averaged fewer than 0.75 points per possession in consecutive contests all season.
Again, not a coincidence. Wade was ineffective because he was limited by injury and unable to do what he does best—attack the rim.
Wade has never been the most injury-immune player—especially in his knees. He’s missed time in previous seasons with knee ailments. He had surgery on his left side in the offseason to deal with lingering soreness.
So as Wade returns to the lineup, it’s critical that the Heat recognize this isn’t an isolated case. Wade needs to be treated with kid gloves in order to avoid any tweaks that could hurt his game in May and June.
It’s a cautious approach—especially with history on the line. But it’s one that may smooth Miami’s road to even more history as back-to-back champions.