Bothered by a bruised right knee, Wade's performance during the NBA playoffs has served as a harbinger of doubt. Averaging a career postseason low in minutes (32.9), points (13), shots (11.8) and free throws attempted (three) per game, Miami's star shooting guard has had a fraction of the impact he was supposed to.
Injuries have followed Wade throughout his career and this year was no exception, but after posting 21.2 points on 52.1 percent shooting during the regular season, the Heat expected more. He put up 22.8 points per playoff game during last year's championship run while plagued by a knee injury, so why wouldn't they? Wade plays through his physical afflictions. It's what he does.
And it's still what he does. Save for Miami's Game 4 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, he's appeared in each of the Heat's postseason bouts. And again, he's logging more than 30 minutes a night. He hasn't allowed his knee to remove him from the pursuit of a second-straight championship. Nor will he.
But he's not Wade.
Wade's physical grievances haven't swallowed him whole, but they've limited him. He hasn't been able to reach the rim as effortlessly as he's known for, and Miami's offensive efficiency has increased by nearly two points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.
On any other team, Wade's numerical (and bodily) transgressions would stand to cripple any and all title aspirations. But not the Heat's.
Russell Westbrook's absence all but sealed the Oklahoma City Thunder's fate against the Memphis Grizzlies. J.R. Smith's regrettable postseason left the New York Knicks embattled and unsuccessful against the Indiana Pacers. And Kobe Bryant's injury put the Los Angeles Lakers in a no-win situation (literally) against the San Antonio Spurs.
Miami isn't "any other team," though.
The Heat rely on Wade to aid in the thrashing of opponents. His offensive creativity—ever underrated playmaking abilities included—is a treasured commodity and his acute defensive sets have been an integral part of Miami's dominance overall.
Suggesting the Heat are not better off without him is fatuous, because they're not. Wade makes them better; he enhances their dynamic. They are, however, furnished with enough two-way firepower to successfully transcend his postseason-long limitations.
That guy you see on the court who can do just about anything he wants to on command against anyone he pleases—that's LeBron James, the reigning MVP and undisputed greatest player in the world. He was also brought to South Beach to contend for (and win) championships. These plans won't be thwarted by an embattled Wade.
LeBron and the Heat are 8-1 on the postseason, and that's with Wade topping 15 points just three times in eight tries. They rank first in playoff offensive efficiency (109.1) and in defensive efficiency (93.4). They've already found success, without Wade being Wade.
Series victories over the mediocre-at-best Bucks and decimated Bulls won't compare to what the Heat face in the Indiana Pacers and then potentially the San Antonio Spurs or Memphis Grizzlies, but that doesn't matter. Miami is built for this.
James has carried a less talented group of players to the NBA Finals on his own before (see 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers), so his current case in Miami hardly poses the most daunting of tasks. With him, the Heat are above crumbling under the weight of Wade's tribulations because they're not Wade's team.
Chris Bosh is a superstar in his own right, Ray Allen remains a lethal shooter and Shane Battier a renowned defender. Mario Chalmers goes hot and cold, but rarely shies away from "the moment," Chris Andersen is never short on effort and Norris Cole makes the most of his minutes. Even Mike Miller can get going when given the chance. Just ask the Thunder. And then there's Wade, who is still one of the most feared talents in the league.
Before them—all of them—there is LeBron, the ultimate catalyst.
Miami depends on each of those guys to do their job and do it well. When they don't, the task at hand becomes more difficult, not impossible. Nothing ever is when you're led by LeBron. Even when it's Wade who is being unceremoniously humanized.
Remember, Wade isn't the only player on Miami failing to meet expectations. Bosh is rebounding more (8.3), but scoring less (13.2). Battier is hitting on just 26.1 percent of his deep balls. Allen is connecting on just 37.8 percent of his after converting on nearly 42 percent for the regular season. Chalmers is shooting just 41.8 percent from the field overall. And LeBron himself is shooting just 31 percent from downtown for the playoffs, reinforcing the notion that the Heat aren't perfect.
Yet, look where Miami is—in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Wade reeling and a handful of his teammates following suit, the Heat have the best record of any postseason team and remain title favorites.
Which isn't going to change. Wade can continue to average career-playoff lows in points scored, but the Heat aren't going anywhere. Not so long as LeBron is still on the floor.
He is Miami's end-all. That's why Wade has willingly deferred the team to him. He's fit to lead the Heat to a title under less-than-perfect circumstances
"I can achieve anything if I just make it a goal of mine,'' James said (via Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida). "I never made it a goal of mine [shooting 50/40/90]. If I decided to do it, I can make it happen.’’
Right now, LeBron's goal is to win another championship, an ambition that doesn't perish or become any less attainable with Wade playing the way he is.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.