They have won championships together, battled each other as opponents and developed into the defining players of one of the best draft classes in NBA history, but LeBron James has something Dwyane Wade never will: bragging rights from their final matchup.
James led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 108-105 victory over Wade's Miami Heat on Monday at Staples Center in what figures to be the last matchup between the two future Hall of Famers after Wade said he will retire following the 2018-19 season.
Los Angeles has found its stride and is now 6-1 in its last seven and 17-10 overall, while Miami dropped to 11-15 and saw its two-game winning streak end.
James won the game and impressed on an individual level with 28 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, while Wade countered with 15 points, 10 assists and five boards. Kyle Kuzma added a game-high 33 points for the Lakers, and Justise Winslow spearheaded the Heat with 28 points.
Winslow and Wade each had potential game-tying threes on Miami's final possession but were unable to deliver with the outcome hanging in the balance.
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James and Wade will forever be linked together.
They are the central figures of a 2003 draft class that also included Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, David West, Kirk Hinrich, Boris Diaw, Kyle Korver, Kendrick Perkins and James' coach, Luke Walton, among others. They won two championships and reached four straight NBA Finals together with the Heat and treated fans to a lengthy list of alley-oops and incredible moments that were featured in tribute videos Monday.
Wade is one of the best shooting guards in NBA history as a three-time champion, NBA Finals MVP, eight-time All-NBA selection, three-time All-Defensive selection and 12-time All-Star.
While James ultimately surpassed him as a three-time champion, four-time MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP, 14-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Defensive selection and 14-time All-Star, they are both headed to the Hall of Fame.
It is the fact that James is still arguably the best player in the league in 2018-19 while Wade is coming off the bench in the twilight of his great career that underscores the former's true greatness.
Yes, James—who turns 34 in December—has the age advantage over the 36-year-old Wade, but that doesn't account for the fact that the Lakers playmaker led the league in total minutes last season while playing all 82 regular-season games and dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals for the fourth straight time.
Those minutes add up, and it was his eighth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
It was an astounding accomplishment for someone playing in his 15th season, and he has picked up where he left off in his 16th by averaging 28.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists in his first 26 games with the Lakers as an early MVP candidate.
By comparison, Wade played 67 games and averaged just 22.9 minutes a night last season and is yet to start for the Heat in 2018-19.
James' elevated status juxtaposed against his friend's isn't a knock on Wade, either. After all, he is aging in a perfectly expected manner and still flashing moments of greatness in the final stage of his career. At least he is on the court and not coaching like fellow draftee Walton or parting ways with the Houston Rockets as a shell of his former self like Anthony.
Rather, it is an appreciation of just how special James is as one of the greatest to ever do it.
Sharing the court with Wade for the final time while Walton coached from the sidelines was another reminder this extended dominance isn't how things are typically done in the NBA.
Wade is getting tribute videos in 2018, while James is still carving up opponents as a championship contender.
Kyle Kuzma's Scoring Ability Easing LeBron's Workload
Brandon Ingram missed his third straight game with an ankle injury, which put more of the spotlight on Kuzma as a secondary act to James.
He delivered on the offensive end yet again, scoring at least 20 points for the fifth straight game and seventh time in the last nine. The streak is a welcome change for the Lakers after the second-year playmaker scored in single digits in three of the previous five contests before the last nine.
Los Angeles is still just 5-5 when James doesn't score at least 25 points, but it won its last two such games during Kuzma's recent scoring stretch.
That is critical because having the offensive onus fall on James' shoulders every night at this stage of his career is a lot to ask with loftier goals looming. The Lakers will need James as fresh as possible come April, May and potentially June.
Kuzma is proving to be someone Walton can count on when looking to take some of the workload away from James. He drilled three shots from beyond the arc against the Heat—a necessary skill set with defenders collapsing on James—and attacked the basket a number of times.
James understands the biggest games are yet to come as a championship-winning veteran, and Kuzma's continued emergence will save some important miles on his legs before the stretch run.
Both teams are on the road for their next games, with Miami at the Utah Jazz on Wednesday and Los Angeles at the Houston Rockets on Thursday.