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Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Finally, health and happiness for Miami

By Michael Wallace



MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade insists a private conversation was never necessary.

There never came a time during the regular season, as Wade’s injury absences piled up and the Miami Heat sifted through 21 different starting lineups, that he sensed a need to pull LeBron James aside and personally remind him of what the bigger-picture perspective promised.

That, however, doesn’t mean that James didn’t occasionally vent frustrations publicly along the way about struggles to sustain rhythm and continuity around him amid the Heat’s ever-changing lineups.

The challenge of carrying an additional burden through the 28 games Wade missed in a regular season that also saw Chris Bosh post the lowest scoring and rebounding averages of his Heat tenure took a physical and psychological toll on James greater than he could have imagined.

Despite how grueling things got in a relatively turbulent 54-win season, James maintained focus through the foggy times when injuries and maintenance programs left the rotation as fluid as a waterfall.

James/Wade
LeBron James has taken the court without Dwyane Wade plenty of times during the regular season, but Wade and the Heat are 100 percent healthy for the playoffs.
“No, I think he knew,” Wade said Wednesday when asked if he ever had to reassure James that the prospects would change once the postseason began. “He knew that we had a different kind of plan. That didn’t make it easy, even though you know what’s happening. It’s still a challenge. But he knows why.”

As the Heat look to take a 2-0 series lead on the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 on Thursday, James can look around him and count 14 reasons why he’s re-energized by the prospects of trying to lead Miami to a fourth straight trip to the Finals and a third consecutive NBA championship.

For one of the few times this season, each one of his 14 Heat teammates is available to contribute. That was a luxury James wasn’t afforded for most of the season, especially when it came to establishing and maintaining a primary playing rotation. James suggested after the Heat’s 21-point victory in Game 1 against the Nets that the lack of continuity could have been a factor in his inability to build a stronger case to win a third consecutive MVP award, which instead went to Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.

“I think I played well enough to win it, but I don’t think our team played well enough [overall],” said James, who repeatedly has mentioned that Durant deserved the award. “We had too many up-and-down stretches throughout the season, and if my team is not winning, then I shouldn’t be the MVP.”

On Wednesday, both Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledged how the challenges James faced during the season forced him to carry more of a load than in the past. But the combination of improved health and a full complement of help have contributed to a rejuvenated James in the playoffs.

James is shooting 57.6 percent this postseason for the Heat, who have won seven straight playoff games dating to last year’s Finals. After sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round and beating the Nets on Tuesday, Miami has started 5-0 for the first time since James, Wade and Bosh became teammates in 2010.

“We have 15 guys ready to play now,” James said. “It was tough during the regular season to get that. But right now, where it matters most, we’re playing our best basketball. It’s a process, but at the end of the day, it’s a clean slate when the playoffs start. We know we have to play at a high level, and we’ve been able to do that so far.”

James has been able to masterfully adapt his game to accommodate the needs of his team. In the first round against the Bobcats, as Wade worked to regain his conditioning from a late-season hamstring injury and Bosh tried to overcome a late-season slump, James picked up his scoring.

He averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and more than two steals in four games against Charlotte. With the Nets keying their defense to load up on James, the four-time MVP has shifted his game to become more of a facilitator to ensure the Heat attack with ball movement and balance.

James led the way with 22 points in Game 1, but the Heat also shot 56.8 percent from the field, registered 22 assists and had five players score in double figures. Spoelstra said it was just the latest example of James being able to seamlessly alter his approach yet remain equally dominant.

LeBron James
LeBron James has been a jack of all trades so far this postseason.
“You don’t take it for granted, because Kevin Durant had an MVP season [and] LeBron did as well,” Spoelstra said. “We didn’t want to use any of the season as an excuse. It was just an opportunity to build habits. The positive of it is guys got their opportunities. None of that is even possible -- we’re well aware of it -- if you don’t have a player of [LeBron’s] greatness and versatility, which is the top of his game. But to go through tough playoff runs, you have to go deep into your bench. And our regular season forced us to do that. You can look at it as a negative, or you can look at it as a positive.”

Spoelstra said James approached it as a case of supply and demand. He supplied whatever the game demanded on a given night, regardless of who was available to play. As the Heat altered their starting lineup between playoff rounds, with Shane Battier having replaced Udonis Haslem at power forward, James has carried that approach into the conference semifinals.

“We need it,” Spoelstra said. “He understands what this team needs, and we need him to play at the highest level and he gets it. He understands it. He’s feeling good about where he is physically right now, so hopefully it will continue.”

James couldn’t imagine it any other way.

“Each game will dictate itself,” James said. “Each game will be different, and I’ll read and react to that. It’s always great to see the numbers spread around like that. The way we played offensively [in Game 1] is how we want to continue to play throughout the playoffs.”

Following that blueprint will become a necessity if the Heat expect to remain a step ahead of the Nets, who would prefer to bait James into playing a brand of "hero ball" that would limit contributions from teammates. James averaged more than 17 shots per game during Miami’s four regular-season losses to Brooklyn. He shot 10-of-15 from the field on Tuesday.

Spreading the wealth resulted in a 19-point effort off the bench from Ray Allen and Bosh’s first double-double since a Feb. 23 victory against Chicago. The Heat are anticipating a number of adjustments from the Nets in Game 2, from being more physical in the lane after giving up 52 points in the paint Tuesday to getting Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett more involved after they combined for just eight points.

But the Heat hope to maintain the routine that worked in the Game 1 rout.

“I think we’re going to beat these guys together,” Bosh said. “I don’t know if anybody is really going to be head and shoulders [above], scoring a bunch of points. We’re going to have to work together, keep moving the ball. Shoot it when you have it, but it’s going to be evenly spread through five or six guys.”

James can find his groove either way.

Wade has seen the season wear on James at times. But now, Wade is seeing a different level of energy and overall effectiveness from his do-it-all teammate. And James appears to be just warming up.

“Obviously, Kevin Durant got the MVP, but we feel LeBron is today’s greatest player,” Wade said. “He understands you don’t become today’s greatest player by being someone who can only do one thing. He can do multiple, multiple things.”

Wade then described what he believes “is a prime example” of James’ mental impact in the postseason.

“He realizes, ‘OK, this series, I can be more aggressive and the ball can be in my hands more,'" Wade said of James. “The next one, he’ll know, ‘Hey, if I go [isolation] the whole time, this team right here will eat us up if we do that.’ It’s just being a student of the game, and knowing how to be whatever we need at a certain time.”