In case you haven't heard, the Miami Heat are gunning for a three-peat, storming through the Eastern Conference en route to a third consecutive chance to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy and celebrate an NBA title.
LeBron James—fresh off a 49-point outburst against the Brooklyn Nets, one that actually left him "disappointed," per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick—has been up to the task.
Dwyane Wade has not.
The Heat were built on the principle that the "Big Three," comprised of the aforementioned superstars and Chris Bosh, would be enough to carry them to title after title, so long as the supporting cast was able to fill in the gaps and step up whenever the stars were struggling.
But with Wade looking decidedly less effective than his vintage self, that's going to be more of a struggle. Miami simply needs more from the starting 2-guard, especially after giving him so many maintenance days to remain healthy throughout the regular season.
The three-peat will be won by LeBron, but it hinges on Wade.
More than What's Happening Now
Wade's struggles in Game 4 of the second-round series with Brooklyn don't necessarily show up if you just look at the box score. After all, his line from the Monday night festivities is actually rather respectable—15 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks and three turnovers on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and a 1-of-2 showing at the charity stripe.
Doesn't sound awful, right?
Well, this is Wade we're talking about. Superstar-caliber play is expected from him, and for good reason.
The Heat aren't just looking for "respectable."
On top of that, let's dive a bit below the surface level on that Game 4 outing.
Wade wasn't just failing to put up big numbers; he was noticeably unaggressive throughout the proceedings. He looked uncomfortable putting up jumpers without that trademark pump-fake that the Nets weren't going to bite on, and he was almost afraid of shooting the ball around the rim. Where he used to dunk the ball, he instead pumped and passed it out of traffic.
And he didn't do that particularly well, as evidenced by that triad of turnovers, two of which came in the fourth quarter. His dishes were lazy and easy to intercept, giving Brooklyn transition opportunities and an ability to work its way back into the game.
I hate to say this about such a storied competitor, but it felt as though Wade was disengaged. Yes, disengaged during the fourth quarter of a tight playoff game against a team filled with bitter rivals.
The 2-guard entered the game in the final period with 10:19 remaining, but Miami may actually have been better off keeping James Jones on the floor. After all, Wade had the two inexplicable turnovers, scored one point while missing both of his shots from the field and fouled Paul Pierce to give him a momentum-changing and-1 opportunity.
An offensive rebound that essentially sealed the game by making it a free-throw-shooting festival for Miami was his lone positive contribution.
And while this took things to an extreme, it hasn't exactly been the first time Wade has failed to play like, well, Wade:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the point of all the maintenance days to keep Wade fresh for the postseason? Wasn't Miami expecting him to come out with renewed vigor?
Apparently he missed the memo.
If Wade isn't going to be himself, he at least needs to be something more than another above-average starter.
LeBron is playing under all sorts of pressure, and the disappearance of one of his marquee teammates—well, relative disappearance—isn't exactly helping to alleviate it. When the superstar forward decided to take his talents to South Beach, he did so under the pretense that he'd be playing alongside two other stars: Wade and Bosh.
But that hasn't always been the case, and the Heat can occasionally feel like a new version of James' old Cleveland Cavaliers, just with fresh faces and different-colored jerseys. Remember, part of the reason he couldn't find the ultimate level of success in his original home was a lackluster supporting cast, one that forced him into doing everything and wearing himself out.
Monday night provided one of those contests when it seemed like he was having deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.
LeBron's 49 points were special, but he slowed down a bit in the fourth quarter, settling for more jumpers instead of driving against Mirza Teletovic, who would normally be severely overmatched. And what if this trend continues against even stiffer competition?
The MVP of the Game 4 proceedings probably didn't mean to tacitly condemn Wade's impact after the victory—he's not usually one to say negative things about those close to him, especially during the playoffs—but it's easy to read between the lines.
"He [Erik Spoelstra] asked me [to sit out part of the fourth quarter] and I didn't know if he was serious or not, and what I told him I cannot say again," James explained to the Associated Press (via NBA.com). "So I wanted to finish out the game. I felt like it was a must-win for us."
Great players don't want to sit. Sure.
But they also recognize when they need to take a quick breather, even if it's for just a minute or two.
LeBron wasn't confident enough in his teammates to do even that. Even with Wade potentially on the court while he caught his wind, he wasn't sure if the rest of the Heat could hold off a motivated Brooklyn squad and avoid putting him in an inescapable hole when he returned to the hardwood.
It's only fitting that the quote came on the heels of breaking Wade's franchise record for most points in a postseason game.
Things are only going to get tougher for the Heat.
Sure, they might easily close out the Nets now that they boast a 3-1 advantage in the second-round series, but then comes a likely grudge match against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. And after that, assuming a successful set of outings against Indiana, the Heat would have to play either the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Finals, with a minimal chance of facing off against the down-but-not-officially-out Portland Trail Blazers.
That's not an easy road.
Thus far, the Heat have been able to survive—rather drama-free, even—without a vintage Wade. In fact, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel paints a rather damning portrait of the artist formerly known as Flash:
Look, I think you can only read so much into body language, so I try not to go there. But clearly the explosiveness hasn't been there in this series, and Dwyane has not been able to blow by even the older Nets. He said it is because of the way the Nets have been playing defense, and that certainly has been a factor. But it's also as if he's settling for jumpers, instead of working off the ball for lane cuts. It all comes back to the Heat's declining assist totals. The precision hasn't been there. As for getting back on defense, that has become a growing concern, amid the Nets' ability to whip the ball to open 3-point shooters.
Maybe Wade has lost a step. Maybe he's lost two.
But the Heat must hope this is simply a matter of flipping "the switch." The team collectively seemed to do so during this second-round series, playing with more enthusiasm and vigor than it has throughout the 2013-14 campaign, save a few marquee regular-season games.
Wade, though, has not.
There's a chance his switch is now stuck firmly at the bottom of its range of motion, unable to make that transition from quality player and fringe All-Star to bona fide superstar. And the Heat will find out soon enough if that's the case.
That said, they need more.
There's no quantitative answer to how much more, as the actual stats he produces are in a constant state of flux, driven by the success of the supporting cast. It's more of a mental addition than anything else, as the Heat's three-peat efforts rest on Wade's ability to reassert himself as a member of the Big Three and take that pressure off his premier teammate.
"Outside of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, we’re more talented than them," Joe Johnson claimed earlier in the second-round proceedings, courtesy of The Miami Herald's Barry Jackson.
It was a controversial statement then, and that hasn't changed even after Wade failed to stand out during Game 4.
But it won't be viewed in the same light if an opponent waiting in a future round decides to repeat Johnson's words verbatim. That's why LeBron and Wade have to be that much better than the other team's two best players when the competition really does get more difficult.
Your turn, Wade.