MIAMI — There aren't any perfectly accurate analogies between sports and life, no matter how often scribes try to make them stick. But since the Heat themselves have referred to their relationships—particularly among the superstars—as a "marriage" the past few years, and referred to the team as a whole as a "family," maybe this one will have some merit:
Everyone got a little too used to Dwyane Wade not being around the house.
No, he wasn't absent all the time, but just enough for others to adjust their activities and responsibilities accordingly. It was either that, or complain about who, and what, they were missing. And that wouldn't have served anyone well.
So Chris Bosh and LeBron James—mostly James—picked up more of the chores, even those that the franchise, for nearly a decade, had relied upon Wade to complete. Otherwise, too many tasks would have gone undone. They even came to appreciate the extra burden, and to appreciate the appreciation that came their way for handling it.
And so it shouldn't stun anyone, now that Wade has moved back in, apparently for good and overflowing with energy, that his fellow family members are a little out of sorts, sharing sideways glances, unsure about exactly what remains on their to-do lists.
That confusion has shown on the court, especially late in contests—as the Heat have lost five of six, including one in overtime and three others by a combined eight points. And it has come across in their words, with the stars making passive-aggressive comments about their involvement, or lack thereof, in the closing moments.
That's not the only reason for the Heat's worst regular-season stretch since 2011, not when they've committed at least 17 turnovers in four of those losses, most of the mindless variety. After all, Miami never should have been behind by 14 against Denver at home to start the fourth quarter, where the final minutes would have even mattered. But it speaks to the tightrope upon which this team perpetually travels, even after their two championships made many assume they'd already crossed to surer footing on the other side.
Due to the duplication in their skill sets, the James-Wade partnership was so problematic at first that both players wondered whether they had erred in aligning. They're past those particular doubts now, with the rings to prove it.
Still, it's inarguable that the integration became easier as Wade's life got harder, as his fading health forced him to take some steps back and forced James—who fancies himself a facilitator—to seize more control.
But what happens now, now that Wade feels fresher and stronger than in many, many months and Erik Spoelstra has entrusted him with some of his former duties?
Heat players spoke about this re-assimilation after Saturday's practice, and with more specificity than they have in some time.
"It's never gonna be ideal, whenever you have this much talent," Wade said. "At some point, someone's going to feel left out. It's just the nature of the beast. But at the end of the day, we all have good intentions for each other, and we've always figured it out. You know, it's a part of it."
Including not feeling a part of it when it counts.
"On this team, we all deal with that," Wade said. "Sometimes (James) has the ball in his hands, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes Chris (Bosh) doesn't get shots, sometimes I don't get shots, sometimes Ray Allen doesn't get shots. But it's not in a selfish reason at all."
Selfish isn't a word often associated with James' play. The common critique of him is that he's too much the opposite, and his significant fourth-quarter slippage of late suggests that he's drifted some when it most matters, especially as Wade has asserted himself.
James spoke Saturday of "starting off the games pretty well," as he did against Denver, when he had a dozen points after a quarter.
So what's happened afterward?
"In the fourth quarter, second half, the game has presented different challenges and I haven't had the ball in my hand as much," James said. "It's something I'll be more conscious about, either demand the ball or just put myself in a position where I get it. So that's the balance that we've been working with right now, because he's played so well as of late, and he's been handling the ball a lot as of late, and I've kind of gotten out of rhythm. And it's something that I have to figure out."
He does. This is mostly on him.
That's because Wade has already been forced to figure out plenty. It was Wade, after all, who had to move mostly off the ball to accommodate James' ascent, learning to cut, to slice up defenses entirely differently. James has had to make adjustments too, but more modest ones, adjustments mostly to his emphasis, such as more of a premium on post play. He still has free rein to play as he pleases.
But that's not to say this is simple.
Wade has missed 16 games, and some on short notice, such as the "drop foot" in Golden State.
Now that Wade is playing regularly and able to do more?
"It's a challenge," James said. "When he was in and out, I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly how I had to attack the game and go from there."
That's because, as he told the media earlier this season, he started to assume Wade was out, especially on the back ends of back-to-backs, and was frequently right. Or, at the least, he assumed Wade wouldn't have enough juice to carry the team in the fourth quarter.
"And as his health has gotten better, it's gonna be better for the team, but it's kind of gotten me out of rhythm right now as an individual," James said. "But it's not like it's our first year playing together. It's something that we figured out on year one. But you can't take it for granted. You still got to try to figure it back out, and it's something I'm going through right now."
They all are, and doing so publicly, which is fine. It's their way, and it has generally worked. As Chris Bosh put it, "We get things out. Nothing personal here, we're all in this together. That's never an issue here. When a guy is expressing something, I would rather him get it out than keep it in. I think that's healthier, not only for the individual, but for the group."
James laughed when asked, tongue in cheek, about a "beef" between him and Wade.
"Yeah, have that be a story," James said, still smiling. "Absolutely. I hate him."
He doesn't, of course.
"We're fine as far as our relationship," Wade said. " One thing is that he's happy that I'm healthy and able to be there in the fourth quarter to run offense. And the whole burden isn't on him. And it's just about finding the right combination. I thought last night we got ourselves in a big hole, but we had the right combination."
Spoelstra pointed out that the Heat scored 36 in the fourth quarter during a furious rally that fell short. And you can be sure that Spoelstra doesn't hate what's happening now. Would he prefer that the Heat rolled to the playoffs as they did last season, winning 27 straight? Perhaps. But he has always viewed adversity as energizing, especially with this group.
James said he came to the gym with a "positive attitude," took responsibility for much of the turnover trouble and promised to re-focus.
"Each season is different, and there's always going to be different challenges," the center said. "And in order to win a championship, you've got to go through stuff like this. We're not gonna be able to go from the year before and last year, and ride happily into the sunset, it just doesn't work like that. It's about trying to figure things out, and really racking your brain, and being frustrated until you figure things out."
He spoke of running plays "where everybody feels involved."
"Team-wise, we understand that sometimes, it's just gonna feel (as if you're not), because we have future Hall of Fame guys, we got All-Stars and superstars on this team, and a bunch of talent," Bosh said. "But there's only one ball. We just got to not learn how to share it, but learn what works for us, but if a guy has got it going, we're talented enough to just kind of rely on that and have our playmakers make plays and our shooters make shots."
They're all back under the same roof.
They've been hoping for a house this full.
A few wins, and it should again be a happy one.
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