Dwyane Wade is back.
Statistically, anyway. There's nothing especially familiar or vintage about his playing style these days. He's different, having adjusted to his limited physical abilities, catering to his jerry-built knees, adhering to safer, less reckless methods of attack.
And yet, he's back—scoring, running, defending, actually playing. He's been back for a while, using most of these playoffs as a new dawn, assuming a familiar role behind LeBron James and no one else, helping the Miami Heat navigate their postseason gauntlet and reassert their status as reigning NBA champs who haven't the slightest intention of vacating their throne anytime soon.
To say Wade has remained perfect all postseason would be overlooking performances that haven't been free of seedy moments and fitful uncertainty.
On more than one occasion, Wade has unequivocally disappeared. Call it willing passivity if you want, but it's happened. Against the Charlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers, it's happened.
It will happen again, too.
Mostly, though, Wade has done nothing but adjust and adapt, taking what defenses give him and what his body can withstand. And unlike last spring, when he labored through the worst postseason campaign of his career, what he's doing is not only working, but he looks great doing it.
Through 12 contests, Wade is averaging 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 53.4-percent shooting, which stands to go down as the second-most efficient postseason crusade of his career. Perhaps more importantly, he's hovering around 35 minutes per game.
Dwyane Wade: "my college coach always drilled in my head: change the pace, change the pace."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 25, 2014
Though the 34.8 he's logging now would be a career playoff low, they're encouraging after seeing his deteriorating body and maintenance program cost him 28 regular-season games. That there was once talk of bringing him off the bench permanently should say it all. Whatever he could offer Miami come playoff time would be welcomed because of how unreliable he'd become on a game-to-game basis.
Pretty much any and all concerns have melted away and been replaced by sorely needed optimism. Wade joins James as the only other NBA player averaging at least 19 points, three rebounds, four assists and one steal on at least 50-percent shooting per game during these playoffs. Not Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul or anyone else. Him.
But while what he's been doing for most of these playoffs has been enough, Wade has kicked it into a different gear against the Pacers.
In three games versus the Pacers, Wade is averaging 24.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 62.0-percent shooting. Yes, 62-percent shooting, because merely converting over 50 percent of field-goal attempts is for suckers.
Somewhat surprisingly, he has been one of Miami's few constants. There have been extended stretches of less-than-excitable basketball—slow start in Game 3 springs to mind—but he's managed to find his touch for long periods in each contest.
Game 3 served as the most accurate example of what, of who, Wade has been these playoffs. Away from the throes and physical drubbings of back-to-backs, No. 3 has been able to establish rhythm without fear of mandatory rest disrupting his cadence.
Not just any kind of rhythm, though. Wade hasn't used explosion and speed as his primary weapons. This is a more refined Wade, who is depending on his finesse and coordination to get by more than anything else.
Devil-may-care rim attacks have been supplanted by mid-range jumpers and floaters in the lane. Forget dunks; he prefers layups. Where he once absorbed and sold contact before crashing to the floor with reckless abandon, he is now adjusting to it, avoiding it if he can.
Only six of Wade's 16 shot attempts came at the rim in Game 3. Instead of driving full force, he was shooting floaters, mid-range jumpers and...three-pointers.
Wade went 2-of-3 from beyond the arc in Game 3. It was the first time he drained at least two deep balls in the same playoff game since June 2012.
"I can shoot the three-ball, I just decided not to," Wade said afterward, per Fox Sports Florida's Charlie McCarthy. "I'm not Ray Allen or these guys, but I can make it. I just decide not to."
Wade says he always had old man game. "God gave me 10 to 12 years of athleticism, out of nowhere." Then he went back to old man game.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 25, 2014
During the regular season, Wade shot 32 total treys. He hit multiple three-pointers in a single game twice all season, so yes, this is a big deal.
Taking to the perimeter has become a familiar theme all postseason, though. Wade isn't shamelessly jacking up three-pointers, but he's making a habit of what we saw in Game 3.
Of the 50 shots he's attempted in the Eastern Conference Finals, only 13 have come at the rim. Everything else has come outside the restricted area or outside the paint entirely.
Here's a gander at his shot chart for this series:
Fewer rim attacks are a boon for his durability. The physical toll he's used to taking is a price he can no longer pay. Modifying his style has been a necessary, gradual process that's finally paying dividends in Miami, where James has his unquestioned, completely dependable sidekick back.
"I don't know why people keep acting like he's 47 out there playing, you'd think he was (Heat assistant coach Bob) McAdoo out there playing," Chris Bosh said, via McCarthy. "He's 32 and in the prime of his career. We can rely on him. He's our guy."
If, in any way, that wasn't true before, it's true now, when the Heat need him to be their guy most.
Dominant Order Restored
The Heat have always been title favorites. That's the luxury of winning two straight championships. The San Antonio Spurs have flirted with unseating them—and they still are—but until they actually dethrone them, the Heat have to be favorites.
Still, that hasn't been something everyone has readily admitted this year. These Heatles were more vulnerable than ever, in part because of the rapidly aging Shane Battier and two-championship hangover, but mostly because Wade wasn't Wade enough. He wasn't playing enough.
Teammates became frustrated with his maintenance program, a potentially detrimental level of displeasure within a locker room revered for its camaraderie, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:
Wade's teammates sometimes would find out their All-Star shooting guard was out a day before the game, sometimes an hour before the game, sometimes he was scratched during pregame warm-ups. Maybe he'd miss one game. Maybe two. Maybe two weeks.
Privately, it occasionally frustrated other Heat players. The lack of information and their competitive spirit as they fought for playoff seeding clouded the Heat's ongoing but hard-to-quantify Wade 'maintenance program.'
But you know what? It worked.
It's been worth it.
When Wade scored at least 20 points during the regular season, the Heat were 22-7. Since the Big Three joined forces, they're also 31-12 in the playoffs when he reaches the 20-point plateau. This year alone, they're 4-2.
That matters. Wade eclipsed 20 points five times all last year during the postseason. He's already past that point, pitching in nearly 20 per game. And when he's scoring, when he's on, the Heat are better. It's as simple as that.
Moving forward, as Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix explains, inconsistent regular-season action is something the Heat will just have to get used to:
For Wade, this type of schedule (and whatever bogus criticisms that come with it) could be something he has to get used to. His longtime trainer, Tim Grover, told Bleacher Report in March that in addition to the bone bruises he believes Wade has chondromalacia patella, or runner's knee, which is an inflammation of the cartilage behind the kneecap. Depending on how Wade intends to treat his knees this offseason -- which could still be about a month away -- a reduced regular season workload could become something he has to accept.
Another championship will undoubtedly make accepting it a lot easier. Wade didn't like it and Spoelstra refused to take any credit for it, but the maintenance plan has worked.
Looking that far ahead, however, borders on pointless right now. The Heat aren't thinking about next season. They're not thinking about this summer. Or next week.
Does Dwyane Wade's postseason resurgence make the Heat title favorites?
They're thinking about right now. And right now, Wade is back.
Different, but back.
"When he's healthy, it's noticeable," Battier said after Game 3, via Mannix.
Of course it is, because the Heat look like they do now—far from perfect, but more than capable of keeping this newfangled tradition of winning championships and forging dynasties alive.