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Nothing hurts like driving to the rim

LeBron James and Dwyane WadeJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could be adding years to their careers by playing together.

Dirk Nowitzki is putting the ball on the floor and finishing hard at the rim. He's as mobile as ever.

NBA players at this stage are almost, as a rule, investigating how to be less athletic, not more.

How is Nowitzki looking so good now, when he's about to turn 33? The real answer probably comes from Holger Geschwindner, who has long managed Nowitzki's unconventional offseason training. But I'm certain part of it is something we have been seeing with our own eyes for years: Unlike every other elite NBA perimeter scorer, Nowitzki has been fairly cautious with his body.

Think about what his rivals have to do. If you're not seven-feet tall and one of the best shooters in NBA history (and who is?), the way to get high-percentage buckets is to bull your way to the rim, which involves:

  • Explosive athleticism on the perimeter.

  • Pivots and cuts at odd angles.

  • An explosive jump.

  • Contact in the air, perhaps incredibly hard.

  • Some kind of landing, maybe off-balance and resulting in a fall, a tumble into the baseline photographers, or worse.

Is any other basketball action as likely to wear you down? Every step taxes the muscle and soft tissues of the legs. For huge off-balance players, the landing can be brutal on feet, knees and everything else.

(And I hear you, macho crowd saying they're professionals they can just deal with this. OK, fine. You're right. The point is, NBA players get hurt at some rate. They're more useful to their teams if they can bring that rate down. Fewer forays to the rim, I argue, does that.)

Watching Allen Iverson heroically bull his way through Lakers in the 2001 Finals, Laker assistant Jim Cleamons said that Kobe Bryant could play that same way if he wanted to, but the triangle was much better because Iverson's approach "tears your body up."

I put it to you that Nowitzki has aged better than a lot of elite scorers simply because he has heeded that advice. He has had no cakewalk, but he has jumped less, taken things a bit easier on his knees, feet, ankles, quads, hips and everything else. Age smiles on this approach.

When the Bulls struggle to score, meanwhile -- and in these Eastern Conference finals, both teams have those stretches -- the tension becomes palpable. Bring in the big guns! Blast away at that Heat defense!

The Bulls famously have just one big gun, as it were, and that's little Derrick Rose. The better the defense gets, the more he is forced to "go Iverson."

We know the opposing defense is extra tough (that's why we called for the big guns in the first place) so now he cuts extra hard, jumps extra high, and lands extra hard. He's incredibly fit, and layered in muscles these days, so he bounces back up just about every time.

But I can't help thinking he only has so many of those fearless raids in his body. The number is big ... but the number is not infinity.

On the other hand, consider Dwyane Wade. As a scorer, he's about as similar to Rose as there is in the NBA. They both combine extraordinary power and insane at-the-rim finishing with crafty perimeter work and a solid jumpshot. (They are also maybe the only two top-shelf NBA athletes who have brought the power to Manu Ginobili's misdirectional "Euro-Step." Something to behold.)

Wade is eight years into this life, though, and isn't above walking like a stiff old man from time to time.

I have no idea if the Heat guard was playing hurt in Game 3 of the conference finals, when he finished six of 17 from the floor with four turnovers, but he certainly didn't look like himself. Watching him, and just him, through much of the third quarter, there were moments of his trademark fury, but the vast majority of the time he was either "guarding" Keith Bogans (mostly, looking for opportunities to strip a passing ball-handler) and then jogging to the weakside corner and waiting.

Waiting for what, exactly? Well, at times he'd lope across to the opposite corner. Now and again, he'd get the ball -- usually to just pass it off again.

Meanwhile, as Wade was gathering strength, or masking an injury, or whatever he was doing, LeBron James and Chris Bosh led the attack -- and well. They led this struggle as, for stretches at least, Wade looked on.

What if Wade and Rose switched teams? On this night he appeared not to be feeling his physical best, Wade would have repeated all those high-risk steps to get to the rim, maybe all while nursing an injury. Tough. Very tough -- and high-risk for more serious injury.

Put it all together, and it's easy to see that James and Bosh could be adding years to each other's careers, by removing the toughest plays from their to-do lists. They're also potentially making each other better right now. Because even if nothing was wrong with Wade, the fact remains that he bought some easier minutes in Game 3, so he'll be less banged up, more rested, and crisper for Game 4.

That's no small advantage, and no doubt one of the reasons NBA stars have been showing an inclination to flock together.