LeBron James got the thumbs-up from Dwyane Wade to facilitate the crunch-time offense.
MIAMI - The conversation needed to happen at some point.
There simply was no way around it. After sitting out the past six games to recover from a combination of ankle, foot and calf injuries, sooner or later Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade and forward LeBron James were going to have to discuss the most seamless way to reunite their dominant play.
After all, James and the Heat had redefined their playing style and rotation pecking order to the tune of a 5-1 record in the most recent stretch of games Wade missed. In that time, James found a productive comfort zone and strung together a run of MVP-worthy performances. He even started referring to his recent play as that of the Cleveland LeBron.
Well into their second season together in Miami, James and Wade still, at times, don't play as much with each other as they do around one another. Finding their Kanye West/Jay Z balance, their Miles Davis/John Coltrane rhythm - especially in the fourth quarter of close games - remains the final frontier yet to be crossed for this Heat tandem.
In some cases, you can play your way through it - feel your way along in game action - and eventually work out some of the kinks. At other times, it takes a conversation and clear communication. By all indications, James and Wade took the latter route before Wade made his emphatic return for Friday's 99-89 win against the New York Knicks.
Wade made several highlight plays and grabbed most of the attention in finishing with 28 points, five steals, four assists and two blocks in 33 minutes against the Knicks. But the underlying theme for the Heat was that James wasn't reduced - or, rather, didn't reduce himself - to a glorified spectator down the stretch. Even with Wade back, this was more about James and whether he would abandon Cleveland LeBron and return his relatively more routine Heat role.
James responded by continuing to put on a Cleveland clinic in Miami, closing out the Knicks with a game-high 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and - perhaps most importantly - another huge fourth quarter outburst to secure the win.
But the key to the dual dominance from James and Wade in their first game back together wasn't only how well they co-existed at the finish. It was also how openly and honestly they communicated before the start.
"D-Wade just told me to keep playing my game - even with him returning," James said of his talk with Wade, a message that was reinforced throughout the game against the Knicks. "I'm going to do that for sure. Last year was definitely a learning experience for myself, just trying to learn how to play alongside him."
That continues to be a work in progress as the Heat look toward Sunday's home showdown against the Chicago Bulls. But James and Wade will try to pick up where they left off in Friday's fourth quarter.
You want a blueprint that lays out exactly how lethal James and Wade can be when working as a cohesive tandem instead of mutually exclusive forces? Just take a snapshot of the final 12 minutes against the Knicks.
It started with rest. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra opened the period with Wade on the bench and James playing the first three minutes. He was free to revert to 'Cleveland LeBron' mode, and an assist on a Mike Miller jumper broke a tied game to give the Heat a lead they kept.
At the 9:13 mark of the fourth, James went to the bench and was replaced by Chris Bosh. During that same substitution, Wade replaced Shane Battier. It was Wade's time to lead and James' opportunity to rest - something he didn't get much of during the fourth quarters of close games when Wade was injured.
Wade's jumper and putback came during a stretch when the Heat pushed their lead to seven. At the 6:25 mark, James reentered for the finish. This was when James carried out Wade's pregame advice. James was the facilitator, Wade the finisher. There were at least two occasions when Wade crossed halfcourt and immediately wanted the ball. But James kept it, set things up and motioned for Wade to run off screens.
Wade's team? Wade's town? Those things don't matter. This was LeBron's show. It was his time to prove that the only adjustment he would make in Wade's return was to be even more like the player who clearly carried the team the previous six games. Wade's job was to fit in.
"They did a very good job of playing off each other," Spoelstra said. "Getting out in the open court, playing off each other on cuts in the half court, and one guy being aggressive, the other guy playing off that. LeBron really has (taken) another step forward in terms of his aggressiveness. Those are positive steps forward for us."
James insists he won't regress.
"I understand that down the stretch, I have to be aggressive, I got to get to the free-throw line, help us stop the clock and get easy buckets. Even with (Wade) playing as great as he did, I stayed into my offensive game."
The high-water mark came when James fed Wade for a lob dunk with about four minutes left in the game. It capped a quarter in which the two combined for 19 of Miami's 25 points and made nine of their 10 free throws. In fact, James' fourth quarter with Wade on Friday was no less dominant than his final period without Wade the other night in Detroit. That's when James finished off the Pistons with 10 points, three assists, two rebounds and made all eight of his free throws over the final 12 minutes of the 101-98 road victory.
Heat forward Chris Bosh is as cerebral as they come in the NBA. He knows this reunion moving forward won't always be as smooth between James and Wade as it was Friday night. But how it played out remains the ideal.
"We have to get back used to Dwyane's tendencies again," Bosh said. "We just have to get used to it again. We just have to continue to stay on the same page. We'll talk about it again (Saturday) and see how we can continue to get better and continue to execute on Sunday."
It takes more than talent for the Heat to work their way through this. It also requires talk. Real talk. And, a willingness to listen and take heed.
That's exactly what happened when Wade approached James and essentially told him not to change the way he's been playing these past few weeks. It was a discussion that could prove to be pivotal, a conversation that defines the rest of their season.
Was it the first step toward Wade, 30, quietly handing James, 27, the reigns as the closing catalyst in Miami? Or was it just a nice way of Wade promising not to step all over James' toes in his first game back?
The answer isn't clear. At least not yet, anyway. We'll see how this plays out in Sunday's game against the Bulls and into the playoffs when it really counts. It doesn't really matter if he's Cleveland LeBron or Miami LeBron right now. The truth is, no one doubts regular-season LeBron. It's Finals LeBron we wonder about.
But what does matter most right now is that James took Wade's advice and ran with it. Literally. And neither of them should turn back now.
The Heat's script was flipped.
And it was just the kind of assist Miami's best facilitator needed from the team's incumbent finisher.