MIAMI — For six months, Dwyane Wade had worked, waited, worked and waited some more, all with this weekend in mind. He had missed 28 games, all in the name of being present, and productive, in the playoffs from the very start. To feel fine, free and fresh from the opening tip.
And he did.
Everything was going exactly as planned Sunday.
Then, suddenly, Wade wished everything would pause.
"I wanted to call a timeout, with like 11 minutes (left) in the first quarter," Wade said, laughing. "So tired. I was happy when Rio got his leg hit, so we had to call timeout."
Mario Chalmers came through in the clutch, by banging his shin against Chris Bosh's knee brace, causing Erik Spoelstra to ask for a stoppage with 7:06 left in the quarter.
"After that, everything settled in," Wade said. "It was that first rush of the playoffs and everything. But after that, I felt fine."
So did the Heat as a whole a couple of hours later, riding runs late in the third and fourth quarters to a 99-88 Game 1 victory against the Charlotte Bobcats. They felt good about the win, for sure, but they felt better about the role Wade played in it—a role many had predicted he would fulfill when the postseason came.
The guard played 34 minutes, scoring 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, with five assists and just one turnover.
"We can count on him," Bosh said.
Wait, what? They can? Since when?
Bosh smiled when reminded of all the stops and starts of Wade's regular season.
"It's nice to be like, 'He's playing tonight?'" Bosh said. "Yesssss!"
While Bosh, LeBron James and others understood the reasons for Wade's absences, the uncertainty wore on them and others as they, and the losses, mounted.
"It was tough, man," Bosh said. "When you don't have one of the best players to play this game in there, and you're used to playing with him. ... You know, I've grown dependent on him, his playmaking ability. It kind of changes everything up. But I think it gave guys opportunities to get more minutes, see where they fit in, and get a feel for the game a lot better. Just be able to get in shape. Hopefully, later on, that will help our bench, so if he gets in foul trouble, we'll know it's nothing new."
Sunday, the Heat got a spark from someone who saw little time even when the Heat were without Wade. Spoelstra wanted someone to shoot over the top of the Bobcats' tightly packed defense, so he called upon trusty veteran James Jones, whose primary role on game days has been been taking the pregame food orders.
Jones—playing instead of Shane Battier and, in the second half, ahead of Rashard Lewis—was a plus-18 in 14 minutes. He scored 12 points, which wasn't stunning, though some of the methods were. Yes, he made two three-pointers and earned three free throws while attempting another jumper. But he also had a pair of layups, one as a trailer on the break and another when he (sort of) broke Cody Zeller's ankles and darted to the hoop.
"I won't call that breaking ankles," Wade said, laughing. "I'll say maybe it was a little wet on the floor. Hell of a move by J.J., and nice finger roll."
James spoke about how Jones would be a "key ingredient to our success" with Mike Miller gone, though that's conditional on Spoelstra not stashing him away. There's no question Wade will be essential, especially as the competition stiffens.
"Physically, this is where I wanted to be," Wade said. "Didn't feel any limitations."
It didn't appear that he did, not when converting James' hit-ahead pass while taking contact; not when rejecting a screen, crossing over Chris Douglas-Roberts and rising over Gerald Henderson for the finish; not when splashing a step-back three and celebrating by pointing at the sky and rolling a strike.
"Natural day," Wade said. "Didn't have to think too much. Just was playing. Making the reads. That's just a sign of feeling good."
That's what his personal trainer, Tim Grover, wanted to see at this stage.
Instinct. “@EthanJSkolnick: Wade said he didn't think much today. Just played. That's where he wants to be.”— Tim S. Grover (@ATTACKATHLETICS) April 20, 2014
That's what James wanted to see, too.
Did Wade look right?
"Can't look no righter," James said.
James acknowledged that he, also, was gassed early, and the rhythm was slow to come. But it did, and the Heat found their form. They had more than a little help, as Al Jefferson—the originator of virtually all of the Bobcats offense—injured the plantar fascia on his left foot, hobbling so significantly after a strong start that Bosh was pleading to get him in more pick-and-rolls.
"That's a terrible injury," said Bosh, who suffered something similar in Toronto.
Jefferson insisted he'd play going forward, but if he's even slightly limited, so goes the Bobcats' slim chance to make this a series. "I don't know if there is one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him," Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said.
Their misfortune presents an opportunity the Heat can't afford to miss. Get some rhythm, get some wind and get a sweep to get some rest for the greater challenges ahead. This is critical most of all for Wade. Everything has gone according to plan, but as Jefferson's misstep showed, you can't plan for everything. Miami needs him making memories in May and June, like previous ones that were captured on the tribute video that aired in the second quarter.
"It was weird and cool at the same time," he said. "You've still got more game left, and everybody's looking up."
Including Wade. He couldn't help it. He hadn't seen many of the highlights in a while.
"You can look at that, and say, 'I was pretty good,'" Wade said, smiling.
Still is, as Sunday showed.