Dwyane Wade Proving Once Again He's Still Among NBA's Elite

Sam RichmondCorrespondent IMay 31, 2014

MIAMI, FL - MAY 30: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat celebrates after Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2014 in Miami, Fl. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE  (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Perhaps none of the great players in the NBA today have dealt with more talk of his demise than Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade has.

There were whispers of Wade's downfall during the 2012 playoffs when he struggled against the Indiana Pacers in the conference semi-finals. He posted just five points on 2-of-13 shooting from the field in a pivotal Game 3 loss.

Wade was injured, dealing with a leg issue that held him out for a few games at the end of the 2011-12 regular season. But this was largely ignored and rarely used as an explanation for Dwyane's bad performance, which would become a theme during the next few years.

D-Wade would bounce back in that series (he scored 41 points in the finale) and help the Heat win a championship, quieting the conversation momentarily.

But months later, in December of the 2012-13 season, it returned. TNT analyst Charles Barkley said among other things that "Wade's not the same guy anymore" and that he needs to understand "that he’s starting to lose his talent" after a bad game. 

Again, Wade would prove his doubters wrong. Following Barkley's comments, Dwyane posted back-to-back 26-point games shooting over 75 percent from the floor. He would later help the Heat win 27 straight games and finished the season with a career-best 52.1 shooting percentage and per-game averages of 21.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

But then came the 2013 postseason. Wade was hampered by knee injuries throughout the championship run and played some of the worst basketball of his career. He averaged just 15.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting from the floor in the 22-game stretch. 

Wade's knees were a huge problem in the 2013 postseason.
Wade's knees were a huge problem in the 2013 postseason.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Instead of Wade being praised for placing the team above himself and fighting to help Miami win even while he wasn't near 100 percent healthy, his status as a great player was once again questioned.

Wade's superstar teammate LeBron James said at the time that Dwyane was angered by the criticism. "It was pissing him off more than anything while he was getting jabbed by everybody saying he's not the same." James told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today Sports

After a summer of shock treatment on both of his knees and workouts with famed trainer Tim Grover to help him recover from the injury woes that hindered him in the '13 playoffs, Wade faced criticism from Kevin Durant days before the 2013-14 season began.

Durant told Cine Sports (h/t SI.com) that Wade wasn't a top-10 player and added "I just thought, that as an older guy, it’s time to pass the torch to the younger guys."

Wade immediately responded with a note to self that said, in reference to Durant,  "Make him respect your place in history… again … “

Eight months later, Wade has lived up to his word.

Dwyane put together yet another extraordinarily efficient season in 2013-14, averaging 20.8 points (54.5 shooting percentage), 4.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. 

But there remained a problem, one thing Wade's dissenters could hold their hat on. Dwyane missed 28 games in the regular season. 

Disregarding that the majority of those 28 absences were planned by Miami in order to ensure Wade was healthy for the 2014 postseason, some believed that he was too old and too broken down, making the Heat vulnerable. 

Before the Heat's conference finals rematch against the Pacers, Indy guard Lance Stephenson went after Wade.

But Dwyane hasn't dealt with an injury, not once during this playoff run. With the Heat up 3-0 in the first round against the Charlotte Bobcats many wondered whether Wade would sit Game 4 out. Miami was faced with the same situation in its first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013 and he didn't play. 

But there was no need for Wade to not play this time around, or any other game throughout this postseason. 

This isn't like Game 3 in 2012 against Indiana, the December 2012 performance for which Barkley ripped Wade or the 2013 playoffs.

D-Wade is healthy. And when that's the case, he's one of the elite players in the league today, although that's tough for many to come to grips with.

Wade recently alluded to that when asked by Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick why others like to "take him down?"

I don't know why. I think I've been good for the game. I don't know why anybody would want to get me out of here. I don't know. I have noticed that. And they're quick to move me out of the way. But, you know, it just makes the story better. Because I won't let them move me, I won't leave. I mean, I'm only 32 years old. Like Chris (Bosh) said (to the media), it's not like I'm 40-something. So, I don't know. I guess it's just the way they want to do me.

There are many reasons why it was much easier for the Heat to dismantle the Indiana Pacers in this year's postseason than it was in 2013, when Indiana put Miami on the brink of elimination and truly challenged it. 

But the most important difference was Wade's performance. While the Heat still had the best player in last year's battle in LeBron James, Indiana had the second-best player in Paul George with Wade hobbled.

This year, Miami clearly had the two best players in this series, and at times, Wade was the better of the Heat duo. 

With Dwyane looking spry and fresh, Indiana was doomed. The Heat guard averaged 19.8 points on 54.5 shooting from the field, 46.2 percent shooting from outside, 85.0 percent shooting from the line, 4.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

Compare that to his numbers in last year's conference finals: 15.4 points, 43.6 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent on threes, 73.5 percent on free throws, 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

But this goes beyond per-game series averages. There are times in a playoff series when a team is desperate and has to rely on its stars to help dig it out of a hole.

There was only one time in the entire 2014 conference finals that Miami really had reason to be fearful. They entered the fourth quarter of Game 2 down 1-0 in the series and trailing by one point. 

Then, LeBron and Wade went to work, scoring 22 points combined in the quarter (Wade had 12) and sending the Heat back to South Beach with a series tie.

That type of explosion is something Miami couldn't count on in last year's playoffs and not for any reason other than that Wade wasn't healthy at the time.

The Wade we're seeing right now is who he is, and who he's always been. 

From a personnel standpoint, Miami is a worse team than it was when it played the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 finals. Mike Miller is gone, and the Heat's two biggest offseason signings of the last year, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, have made no impact. 

But the Heat have the real Dwyane Wade, not the impostor that showed up to the 2013 playoffs, which should make the Spurs or Thunder awfully fearful of trying to prevent another parade down Biscayne Boulevard.

Follow me on Twitter @srichmond93