MIAMI -- For Dwyane Wade, this was all about timing and progress.
With less than six weeks remaining before the NBA playoffs, it was time to speed up the process of shoring up the newer aspects of his game he’d been experimenting on throughout the season.
And having experienced mixed results the past two times he’s attempted to push through games on consecutive nights, Wade needed to gauge the progress he has made amid the season-long maintenance program designed to treat and preserve his troublesome knees.
Throw in the fact the Miami Heat returned home on a three-game losing streak, the conditions were set for Wade to pursue the kind of answers he sought from himself and his team heading into a challenging four-game homestand that started with Monday’s visit from the Washington Wizards.
“I felt good enough to do it, and I wanted to challenge myself,” Wade said after Miami’s 99-90 victory over Washington. “I knew we had a lot of games this week, but I just decided to do it. I came in and didn’t feel like I couldn’t go out there and do the things I needed to do.”
This wasn’t simply Wade going through the motions a night after he played nearly 40 minutes and scored a game-high 25 points in Sunday afternoon’s overtime loss in Chicago. Instead, this was Wade dominating down the stretch with emotion and devotion.
Wade scored 13 of his 22 points in the decisive fourth quarter to help the Heat pull away from the Wizards after the teams were tied at 73-73 entering the final period. This was two-way Wade, who dished three of his six assists in the fourth and also blocked a shot that initiated the Heat’s closing run.
This wasn’t the level of production the Heat have grown accustomed to getting from Wade on both ends of a back-to-back set this season. The first time Wade tried to play in games on consecutive nights was in November, when he played one of his most complete games of his career in a Nov. 15 home win against Dallas but limped off the court with soreness in the third quarter the next night in Charlotte.
The decision to test his right knee too extensively too soon after an offseason procedure to address multiple bone bruises resulted in a weeklong setback in Wade’s recovery process. It would be another two months before Wade dared to attack another back-to-back.
The outcome was more encouraging in early January. Wade had 20 points, six rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes in a Jan. 4 win in Orlando and came a night later with 14 points, nine rebounds and two steals in 35 minutes on the way to a home win against Toronto.
So based on the every-other-month schedule, perhaps it was time to check again. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra scoffed at the notion that part of the team’s proactive approach with Wade was designed to keep him out of games on consecutive nights this season. But that was clearly the way Miami handled Wade, with the focus exclusively on building Wade’s confidence and health for the playoffs.
A week ago, Spoelstra said the team’s only goal for Wade was to get him playing -- and feeling -- his best in time for the Heat to begin their push for a third consecutive championship.
“People made sweeping assumptions that he won’t play any [games] back-to-back, but that’s never been the case,” Spoelstra said. “When we say everything is day-to-day, that’s what we mean. If he can pass a series of exercises and tests of the routine ... if his legs feel good, why hold back? He’s ready to go and he can play. We anticipated early in the year that as the season went on, he would feel better.”
Spoelstra also said there was no hesitation from Wade or the training staff to allow him to play Monday. But the coach also said there was a moment in the fourth quarter when he thought about taking Wade out as a precaution but decided against it because he was playing so well to close out the game.
Nine other times this season, Wade split back-to-back sets by playing one night and resting the other. Had that trend continued Monday -- as it did a week ago when he sat a Monday win against Charlotte and played in a Tuesday loss at Houston -- there’s a strong change the Heat’s losing streak would have reached four games.
LeBron James bounced back from a weeklong slump by his standards to finish with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting, and Chris Bosh had 22 points on 14 shots. But the offense ran through Wade for much of the second half against the Wizards, largely because he was able to drive and finish at the rim or set up teammates. He was also able to get to the free throw line while James did not attempt a free throw in consecutive games for the first time since his rookie season in 2003.
This was the Heat leaning on Wade on a night they otherwise would have been without him.
“It was great,” James said. “He had the ball in his hands and made the right plays for himself and for his team. He didn’t let us down.”
There were times throughout the season when teammates didn’t know whether Wade would play or sit out until just before they hit the court for pregame warm-ups. It reached a point that Wade started to inform his teammates earlier on game days when his body wasn’t cooperating so that they could better adjust and prepare for him to sit out.
With the playoffs looming, Bosh said he’s confident in Wade’s approach.
“We’re to the point now where the playoffs will come early this year,” Bosh said of the Heat increasing their intensity as they chase Indiana for the No. 1 seed in the East. “I expect him to play. We need to be at full strength.”
Neither Wade nor his team are there quite yet.
Last week’s losing streak exposed some offensive chemistry issues and defensive lapses the Heat will need to fix over the final 21 games. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, so there’s really no reason for Wade to get himself accustomed to playing on consecutive nights. And he warned Monday that it’s unlikely he will continue at this rate and play in both games of the five remaining back-to-back sets.
Considering the timing and opportunity, this was about Wade proving that there has been progress.
And that he could be there when needed.
“I paced myself,” Wade said. “We just needed this win and it was good for us. At this time of the year, I would love to play every night as we get into the groove to go into the playoffs.”