MILWAUKEE -- Erik Spoelstra had some very tough rotation decisions to make as he prepared the defending champion Miami Heat for this season's playoff run.
But considering the schedule and circumstances, this call should be easy for the NBA Coach of the Year candidate.
The Heat should shut down Dwyane Wade for what's left of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Ahead 3-0 with a chance to sweep the series on Sunday, there's no better time than now to give Wade the time off he needs to treat the recurring soreness in his right knee.
Miami clearly doesn’t need Wade to close out the Bucks.
But the Heat will need their second-leading scorer and psychological leader to get them through a potential second-round series against the Bulls, followed by a conference finals matchup with either the Pacers or Knicks and an NBA Finals showdown against whichever team is fortunate enough to emerge from the banged-up West.
It didn't take Friday's stunning announcement that Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook needed knee surgery and will be out indefinitely to remind the Heat just how fragile and volatile these teams and times are now. But Westbrook's injury did land another sobering blow to these playoffs, a blow that was as thunderous as any of his vicious dunks.
No fewer than 10 of the 16 teams in the playoff field are missing at least one starter or primary rotation player because of a season-ending injury. Westbrook now joins Denver's Danilo Gallinari, Golden State's David Lee, New York's Amar'e Stoudemire, Boston's Rajon Rondo, Chicago's Derrick Rose and seemingly every Los Angeles Laker not named Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol among the wounded elite to see their team's title hopes weakened.
Injuries are unpredictable. There's no way to prepare for them or really guard against them. But teams can -- and should -- do whatever they can when afforded the opportunity to reduce the risk by limiting players who are obviously pushing through nagging and recurring issues.
That brings this all back to the Heat and Wade, who has been receiving extensive treatment for multiple bruises and inflammation around his knee for the better part of two months. Wade aggravated the knee again in Thursday's victory against the Bucks and finished 1-of-12 from the field with just four points for the worst playoff shooting performance of his career. After the game, Wade admitted that his knee was bothering him but that he was still able to do enough to finish the game and also contribute 11 assists, nine rebounds, five steals and two blocks.
On Friday, Wade went to his former college campus at Marquette to receive two hours of treatment on his knee, and Spoelstra declined to give a definite status for Wade's availability for Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. What the coach did say was that Wade clearly needs time to heal and get back to consistently being that explosive player Miami saw for extended stretches midway through the season.
“He's been dealing with this for over a month,” Spoelstra said Friday during an off day for the team. “He's getting better, but he plays a physical game. He was on the floor four or five times last night. He got hit in the elbow, got hit in the face, got hit in the knee -- all in one play. He's fighting through it. Some days are better than others. It all depends on the collisions he's had the night before.”
There was a time not long ago when the Heat, Wade and Spoelstra wouldn't so vividly divulge the aches, pains, bumps and bruises Wade has been dealing with. But now, it's more of a surprise when Wade emerges from a game without having to have one limb or another treated for hours after a game and then well into the next day or so.
Credit the Heat for being proactive with Wade's knees throughout the season, especially with him coming off summer surgery on his other knee. But this has been a painful and frustrating balance for Wade, despite his upbeat nature and willingness to finally acknowledge and start to embrace his NBA mortality. For the first four months of the season, Wade worked to get his surgically-repaired left knee strong enough to restore his game to an elite level.
And just when he started to turn a corner and sustain a stretch of breakout performances in February at the start of the Heat's 27-game win streak, his right knee took a hit.
And then another two after that.
It's been a back-and-forth battle between rebuilding one leg and recovering from an injury to the other one.
“He's building each and every day, trying to get back to where he was midseason,” LeBron James said of Wade. “Each and every day, each and every game when he gets a chance to get with his physicians and trainers to help him get back, he'll continue to strengthen that knee. A couple of moves he's had, he still shows why he still is and will be one of the best players on the floor each and every night.”
The Heat rested Wade for six consecutive games and eight of 10 over the final four weeks of the regular season to give him a running start entering the playoffs. Since then, there have been flashes of athletic and dominant play as well as stretches of hard falls, limping and grimaces.
Some good days, some bad.
Nights pushing himself on the court are followed by days pouring himself onto training tables and then hot or cold tubs. It's made for an especially bitter-sweet experience for Wade the past few days in Milwaukee. He transitions between reliving some of those glory moments of his youth on Marquette's campus where he starred in college, and then realizing the impact of 10 NBA seasons on his body.
“I'm not there; I'm still building,” Wade said of the status of his right knee before Game 3. “I'm trying to take care of my body because I know how important it is. That's why I've been in there [in treatment and training] all afternoon, because I'm not where I want to be, not even close. But I'm able to push through, get through certain things. But I've still got a lot more improvement to do. Once I get there, you'll see a lot different smile on my face.”
It's a process of avoiding diminished returns. Wade considers it progress when he plays one night and wakes up the next day without the knee feeling worse than before.
In reality, that's not necessarily progress.
It's survival. And right now, the Heat can survive without him at this stage of the playoffs. Maybe the next one, too, if Miami continues to get production from Ray Allen, who is averaging 16.7 points off the bench this series.
Spoelstra insisted Friday that Wade's condition right now is nowhere near as bad as it was in last season's playoffs when he had the left knee drained in the second round against Indiana and then dragged his leg through the title run.
“It's not anywhere near that,” Spoelstra said. “Structurally, his knee is as good as it's been in years. And that's why we're treating it day to day. What it needs is time, and it gets better. And what it also needs is no collisions.”
There's only one way to assure Wade gets plenty of the former and avoids any of the latter: Sit him.
Buy Wade as much time as possible to rest and recover and hope the Bulls and Nets slug it out for six or seven games. Right now, the Heat aren't just one of the best teams in the playoffs. They're also the healthiest. And right now in this first-round series against the Bucks, they have the equivalent of a 20-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
Don't bother risking anything with Wade at this stage of the game. The Heat are far better off just resting him.