MIAMI — Throughout the postgame interview, as his irritation increased, so did the speed and force of Dwyane Wade's chewing. Wade is weary of talking about his timeworn knees, wearing of putting worries to rest, weary of just about everything other than playing some role in winning games.
And so, his retainer—which he's been required to wear since his braces came off—took a beating, as he took more and more questions on his least favorite topic.
Of course, he knew those questions were coming Sunday, even after teammates, especially LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers, played a more meaningful role in the Miami Heat's 113-101 runaway from San Antonio.
Wade played for the first time in nine days and five Heat games, but not at the start. He came off the bench in both the first and third quarters, filling a reserve role for just the ninth time in his career and the first time in more than five years.
How did this come about?
Apparently, it was by request.
"He came to me," Erik Spoelstra said.
And made it clear.
"I'm coming off the bench tonight," Wade told him.
Wade came to that decision for a variety of reasons: his expectation of his lack of on-court rhythm, after he's spent the past week rehabbing in the training room or working with Tim Grover, his recognition that he might not have his second, third and fourth wind just yet and his respect for his team's "good groove" without him.
And he knew how it would play, no matter how he played—for the record, he finished with eight points, three rebounds, five assists and two turnovers in just under 24 minutes. He knew that even if "I did what I wanted to do," which in this case was get some of that rhythm and wind back, it would make more people wonder whether he'll ever be fully right this season.
It would make some people be a little more scared about his status going forward.
"People can be whatever they want," Wade said.
"The reality of it is they got to wait and see. I'm not going to make a bigger deal out of it than what it is. And I'm not going to act like it's nothing neither. It's very well documented. You know, it's covered too much. People can think what they want. I'm going to continue to work to make sure I'm at my best when I can be."
And the Heat need to keep work on adjusting as best they can.
Sunday was a good start. Sure, Miami had some help, with three Spurs starters missing (Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green). And sure, you knew that the Heat would play harder than against the meek of the East, since they tend to calculate when to care. Still, the home team showed an ability to adapt that will serve it well going forward.
Spoelstra spoke about this necessity prior to Sunday's contest. For the past three years, the protege of push-push-push Pat Riley has resisted any suggestions that he sit players more often or to start the "maintenance program" earlier, even as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was using those tactics without apology.
But, over time, he's become a bit more measured—cutting practice sessions, resting starters and key subs. And after the addition of Chris Andersen allowed him to settle on a rigid nine-man rotation halfway through last season, he's warmed to the reality that he can't do the same this time, not in light of Wade's uncertain availability, Greg Oden's careful integration and the advanced age of several other veterans.
Sunday, for the first time all season, Spoelstra had all 15 of his players at his disposal.
And yet, of finding a consistent rotation, the coach insisted:
"I'm not going to overthink that. Look, I'm trying to impress that message to our players. Sure, we'll try to get to that. We might not. Let's embrace this year. It's different. And that's one of the challenges. It can be an excuse, or we can find an excuse how to win. We have to find more of those excuses, of how we can win, how we can come together more under these circumstances."
Has Spoelstra taken any lessons from the way Popovich has done it?
"Maybe from a big picture perspective, but ours is different, in terms of there's not necessarily a three-month plan we can put together," Spoelstra said. "That's not realistic for this group. When we say day-to-day, that's what we are. Now, we're trying to be very judicious about our decisions, that we're showing great discipline of thought, and patience with our decisions, and not necessarily making knee-jerk, what's best for now. But that decision is still based on today."
Sunday, Wade's decision—made in concert with Spoelstra—worked well enough.
"I loved the way we approached this game," James said. "We had a great mindset and great focus defensively."
They weren't bad offensively either.
"They came with their 'A' game," Popovich said.
Miami scored 24 and led by five by the time Wade entered with 4:41 left in the first quarter. Then, with Ray Allen starting the second half, the Heat expanded an eight-point lead to 16 by the time Wade entered with 3:39 left in the third quarter.
Bosh carried much of the offense, continuing his lethal shooting over the past seven games; as Wade has scored a total of 24 points (three eight-point outings and four DNPs), Bosh has averaged 24.0 points on 61.1 percent from the floor. James operated easily, as he often does when he's paired with floor-spacers. Greg Oden's timing still seemed a tad off, but he played a season high in minutes (13) and his defensive activity altered shots.
And Miami raised its record to 32-12, just three back of the Indiana Pacers in the East and just one back (with a tiebreaker) of the Spurs should the teams each advance to the NBA Finals.
They did it using a starting lineup that is now 6-2, second in usage (but not by much) to the Heat's so-called "regular lineup," the one that is 13-3 with Wade, James, Bosh, Chalmers and Shane Battier.
So, all in all, a good day for the Heat.
Just not for Wade's retainer.
"Don't have to force things," Wade said at one point in the postgame inquisition. "I live under my own umbrella, man. I do things that make me happy, and work best for my team. I don't have to worry about forcing things. I've got a bigger picture in mind."
Could that picture include a few more bench appearances, as he works his way back? Spoelstra wouldn't commit either way. So, for now, it's just another thing for the team, and the public, to chew on.
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