MIAMI -- Because of the way he sets up teammates on the court, four-time league MVP LeBron James is regarded as one of the NBA's best facilitators.
But James' biggest assists Monday came well before the Miami Heat thumped the pesky Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season.
Hours before the game, James went to frustrated teammate Dwyane Wade and offered two potential solutions to finally shake the veteran guard from his series-long struggles.
First, James offered to switch defensive assignments and relieve the 6-foot-4 Wade of the massive challenge of guarding 6-9 forward Paul George, the Pacers 'leading scorer who won the league's most improved player award.
Secondly, after hearing Wade express concerns about a supposedly diminishing role in the offense in recent games, James decided to call the first few plays of Monday's game to get his sidekick into a comfort zone as early as possible.
“Just to make him feel like he was a part of the offense, make him feel in a good rhythm,” James said. “And it showed throughout the whole game that he was in a rhythm. He started to make layups, he started to attack, he started to make his free throws. So it was big time.”
It was big enough to result in Wade's best performance of the playoffs, as he finished with 21 points on 16 shots to go with a game-high nine rebounds, a steal and a block in 35 minutes. Wade's breakout performance -- combined with Chris Bosh's series-high eight rebounds and three first-half 3-pointers from Ray Allen -- finally delivered the level of support James had been missing from the key members of Miami's supporting cast for much of the hard-fought series.
And that boost came just in time for the Heat, who were pushed to a decisive Game 7 for the second straight year in the conference finals but responded with a relentlessness on both sides of the ball that made you wonder why the defending champions made this series much harder on themselves than it probably had to be.
Credit the Pacers for using the league's best defense to make life miserable for the Heat.
But Wade was finally able to emerge with an outlier effort in the midst of what has been his least productive playoffs since his rookie season a decade ago. Wade tried to simply dismiss Monday's contribution as one of those nights when his troublesome right knee didn't bother him as much.
That much seemed obvious from the outset, when Wade attacked from the post on his first few baskets and then capped the first half with his signature “Euro-step” move in transition to slide past Lance Stephenson for a dunk.
Wade said his discussion with James, as well as a talk he had with coach Erik Spoelstra during the team's day off on Sunday, allowed him to psychologically push past his problems through the first six games against the Pacers. After that, it was just a matter of how much his body would cooperate with the plan set in place entering Game 7.
“I'm going to play through the pain because this is my job,” said Wade, who shot 7-of-16 from the field and made all seven of his free-throw attempts.
“My team depends on me. Like I said a couple of series ago, I would love to be one of the players who never has to deal with these conversations, never have to deal with these injuries. But that's not my path. I'll find a way. I'll figure it out. Some way, some how, if you give me enough time, I'll figure it out.”
Wade had been averaging 13.6 points in the playoffs before Monday's game. He scored 10 points in each of the previous two games against the Pacers, and was benched for much of the fourth quarter in a Game 6 loss.
But Indiana faced a different player than the one who stumbled around, fumbled passes and shot 32.3 percent from the field over Games 4, 5 and 6 of the series.
“Clearly, he had the will to try to back up his words,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of Wade. “He was going to try to do everything possible, whether his shot was falling or not. He had the mindset to impact the game in any way he possibly could.”
Wade's most impressive numbers Monday were his rebounding totals, which included six offensive rebounds that contributed to many of the Heat's 22 second-chance points. For the first time in the series, Miami won the rebounding battle 43-36 and beat Indiana at its own game.
“It was Game 7,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said of Wade. “He turned it on.”
Indiana forward David West didn't anticipate that effort from Wade after seeing him limited throughout the series.
“That's probably the hardest he's played just in terms of effort, we felt,” West said. “We knew he, at times, was in and out of the series just in terms of impact. But his experience took over. He made some key plays. He missed some shot and went and got it off the glass a few times. He beat us in the effort department, and he physically played harder than we had seen in the previous six games.”
There also may have been a possum element to Wade's approach. After answering questions about his knee and a drop-off in his game since the start of the series, Wade stored up enough energy for a resounding Monday.
“That's just Dwyane being who he is,” Spoelstra said. “He has an uncanny way. All of us have seen him over the years. When you count him out and you need him most, competition is at its fiercest, he's going to be there for you.”
Wade is now back in the NBA Finals for the fourth time in his career, which includes a title run in 2006 when he guided Miami past Dallas and was named MVP of the series.
Back then, Wade was in his prime as the Heat's clear-cut leader and catalyst. Now, he's entrenched in a supporting role alongside James. At times, Wade still struggles with that reality as much as he does with nagging knee pain.
But James' best skill, among all others, is his ability to read his team, analyze a situation and form a plan of attack. At a time when James saw Wade sulking, he figured out a way to help him get back to soaring. At least for a night.
A big night.
“It just happened that this series, guys just weren't in rhythm, not feeling like themselves,” James said. “Any pressure I could take off D-Wade, I wanted to do that.”
Wade gets two full days to recharge his body before the Heat and Spurs play Game 1 on Thursday in Miami. No player is more thrilled to hit the reset button than Wade.
But he's also bracing to endure a similar pattern in the NBA Finals. There will be games he feels fine and others when he feels like his dragging his right leg around the court. He's also prepared for fresh set scrutiny and potential criticism of his initial impact in the championship series.
“There will be some moments next series where I won't be looking so great,” Wade said. “I'm sure there will be some great headlines out there about myself. But I'll continue pushing. I'll continue to try to help do whatever I can to help the Miami Heat win another championship.”
Wade's timing did test James' patience a bit.
“Hey,” James said, “[If] you save it until the last game, and it allows us to advance, then I'm OK with that.”