“It's going to be a process,” James said. “But I'm close.”
After taking the day off Saturday, the Heat will resume practice Sunday with their roster trimmed to the league maximum of 15 players and their full focus on the Bulls. Miami announced Saturday the team has waived forward Eric Griffin and center Justin Hamilton. The moves leave Michael Beasley and Roger Mason Jr., who are on non-guaranteed contracts, in the 14th and 15th roster spots.
But the Heat's top two players won't exactly be sprinting into the regular season on the heels of an eight-game exhibition schedule that wrapped up with Wade struggling through a sluggish performance and James joining Chris Bosh in sitting out Friday's lethargic loss to Brooklyn.
James has spent the past month gradually working his way back into shape after a summer of extensive travel. Meanwhile, Wade has used the preseason to focus on strengthening his troublesome knees, which required extensive offseason treatment and rest after both gave him problems during Miami's postseason run to a second consecutive title.
James played in six of the eight preseason games while Wade played in five, including the Heat's final three after skipping some early contests to instead push through extended sessions and post-practice conditioning work.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has mostly kept James and Wade under 30 minutes per game in the preseason. James said it would be a challenge to jump directly to a 40-minute workload and perform at the efficient and dominant level he reached at the peak of his previous two MVP seasons.
“Obviously, I'm not there right now,” James said. “I can't do a 40-minute game right now –-- or 38 [minutes] of all, full-out, blow-it-out [work], because I'm not there conditioning-wise. But definitely, I'm close. Even during the off-days, I'm still in here getting work in, continuing to push the heart rate, getting my legs ready.”
Spoelstra has given James and Wade the leeway over the past month to get the majority of their more grueling work done in practices and then determine whether they wanted to rest or play reduced minutes in the preseason games. That's led to some makeshift lineups and rotations that created few opportunities for the Heat's primary groups to consistently play together publicly over the past month.
“The practices have been very intense and competitive,” Spoelstra said. “That has to do with the guys' character and preparation, but also their ability. We have a bunch of professionals who understand what it's all about. Guys are just trying to improve, re-invent and be sure when their number is called, they can impact the game.”
The Bulls are coping with a set of their own issues as they prepare for the Heat. Center Joakim Noah is battling a groin injury and guard Kirk Hinrich is overcoming a concussion. The status of both players remains in question for Tuesday's visit to AmericanAirlines Arena, which will be highlighted by Derrick Rose's long-awaited return after he sat out all of last season to recover from knee surgery.
Judging by early indications from the preseason, Rose appears on the verge of quickly regaining his MVP form from three seasons ago. In his seven preseason games, Rose averaged 20.7 points, 5.0 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 27.4 minutes a game. But the most impressive numbers have been his shooting percentages of 47.6 overall and 44.4 from 3-point range, which would mark a career-high clip.
Wade is satisfied with his overall progress in the preseason, but has suggested for weeks he wouldn't be where he'd like to be from a conditioning standpoint by the season opener.
“My process is for the long haul -- I know, right now, I'm still getting into it,” Wade said. “I'm still finding myself, finding my game. I'm just not where I want to be yet, but I'm not behind at all. I'm in a good place. Obviously, I want to feel amazing when I'm on the court and not think about anything. I'm just working my way to get there.”
Wade pointed to his play midway through last season as the barometer he's seeking. Wade had his best two months of the season last January and February. His production peaked in February, when he averaged 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals in 13 games. Wade shot 53.2 percent and averaged 36.2 minutes in that stretch.
But Wade then sustained a series of bone bruises in his right knee over the course of Miami's 27-game winning streak, and he later was affected by tendinitis in his surgically repaired left knee going into the playoffs.
The mission, Wade said, is to gradually and ultimately work his way back to that midseason form from last season.
“I think between [last] December and February, I just felt great on the court,” Wade said. “I felt I could do anything and nothing held me back. I want to get to that point where it's a constant and everything feels right.”