|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
SAN ANTONIO -- Desperate and facing elimination in the NBA Finals, LeBron James gathered his teammates together before Game 5 Sunday and passionately told them to follow his lead.
But the Heat's season ended abruptly and painfully because Dwyane Wade was never able to fall in line.
The gap between what James needed and what Wade and the Heat's supporting cast were able to provide proved in this series to be as wide as the distance between the Riverwalk and South Beach. Wade continued to insist after Sunday's 104-87 series-clinching loss to the Spurs that his lethargic play in the Finals wasn't the result of an injury or setback in his long-standing recovery from knee issues.
Wade hobbled through another rough outing to finish with just 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting and three turnovers in 36 minutes. That performance came a game after Wade missed nine of his first 10 shots and finished 3-of-13 from the field for just 10 points in a 21-point loss to the Spurs in Game 4.
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The problems for Wade extended beyond his offense, with his defensive struggles singled out in an 11-minute YouTube video that went viral in the days leading up to Game 5. Wade's play largely left James and the Heat in a dilemma against the Spurs.
The pride of one of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history wouldn't allow him to admit that his body was obviously failing him against the Spurs. But his sheer presence failed to provide the boost James needed to help counter a Spurs team that exploited every mistake and effort lapse in the series.
"I just struggled a little bit," Wade said dismissively. "As I told you guys, I'm never going to point at anything physically. I felt fine. I just struggled a little bit offensively. You know, I wish I could have done more, but it's the nature of the game. So [it's] nothing physically at all."
That answer was an example of Wade trying to do the noble thing, the right thing. He wants to give the Spurs their due respect for the way they defended and dominated the series and knocked him off his rhythm. But the truth is San Antonio never really had to shift much of its focus to containing Wade, who averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the series. He shot just 43.8 percent from the field, which culminated in the least productive series of Wade's five trips to the Finals.
This wasn't the Wade the Heat needed or expected, especially coming off a stellar series in the conference finals against the Indiana Pacers. Two weeks ago, Wade responded to taunting and wisecracks from Indiana guard Lance Stephenson about his knee potentially flaring up by putting up 19.8 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting to put away the Pacers in six games.
But the reliable and seemingly rejuvenated Wade, who helped James torch the Pacers a series ago, was the source of much of the torture the Heat endured against the Spurs. There had to be a reasonable explanation, beyond the Spurs' impeccable play, for why Wade, 32, was a few steps slow defensively, was unable to finish at the rim offensively and seemed disinterested in lateral movement on both ends.
Meanwhile, James pushed through for 31 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in yet another remarkable performance that the Spurs were able to absorb without ever really being threatened by contributions from any of his teammates.
James entered Game 5 averaging nearly 28 points and shooting 60 percent from the field and 61 percent from 3-point range. He got to his game but didn't get help along the way from Wade or Chris Bosh, who had 18 points and 9 rebounds in Game 1 but was not much of a factor over the final three games of the series.
"It's hard to say anything," James said when asked how he dealt with his teammates after being overwhelmed by the Spurs. "Everyone is going through their own emotions right now. Everyone deals with it differently. I keep my head high. I understand the position I've been able to put myself and this team in since I got here, so my head stays high. And I'm going to stay positive and use this as another opportunity to get better next year. But everyone is different."
That includes Wade, who enters an offseason of uncertainty.
Just before the start of the Finals, Wade considered his season on the verge of being a major success. After missing 28 games during the regular season, with most absences part of a maintenance plan to rest and restore his knees, Wade got better and stronger in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs.
He indicated he was as healthy as he'd been in at least two years and appeared to be destined for an offseason without surgery or a major procedure for the first time since the summer of 2011.
Then these Finals happened.
"It wasn't just Dwyane," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of what went wrong. "It was pretty much everybody except for LeBron, and we just weren't able to get into our normal rhythm. You'll have to ask (Wade). He's not going to make an excuse. He wouldn't want me to make an excuse. Nobody at this time of the year feels great. It's about competition and just trying to find a way. And [the Spurs] found a way."
The question now is which way do Wade and the Heat go from here? Might he need more work done this offseason, after his body seemed to have betrayed him in the Finals? Can he be relied upon as a starter, or should the Heat try to transition Wade into the role of a sixth man?
And how will the Heat and Wade balance pride and prudence? What's generally suspected and should be accepted is that Wade's play in the Finals certainly raised more questions than it answered.
Like James and Bosh, Wade could opt out of his contract to become a free agent July 1. As a three-time champion who has been the cornerstone of the Heat franchise since he was drafted fifth overall in 2003, Wade could then seek a four-year contract at the maximum salary of more than $90 million -- a deal that would drastically limit the Heat's ability to potentially restructure the roster around James.
Wade could also opt out and take less money, in conjunction with other players, to potentially create salary-cap space to help retool a roster that needs to trend younger and more athletic. Or, Wade could simply bypass the option and elect to play out a contract that has two years and $41 million left.
In an interview with ESPN.com days before the Finals, Wade said he didn't feel obligated to opt out and take less money and believed such a move wasn't essential to keep the team's top three players together. James was noncommittal on his future Sunday night. Bosh said after the team's shootaround Sunday morning that a loss in the Finals wouldn't bring an end to their time as teammates, after a successful run of consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013 and four straight years in the Finals.
"We didn't know what to expect when we decided to come together four years ago," Wade said. "We felt as individuals we could do it, that we could put our egos to the side and not care about the individual part of the game and become a great team. It's been a hell of a ride in these four years. We didn't say, 'OK, let's try for four years.' We said, 'Let's just play together, and let's see what happens.'"
The Heat now head into an offseason of reassessment.
Among the priorities is trying to figure out what to expect from Wade moving forward.
The same player who peaked against the Pacers was completely puzzling against the Spurs.