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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Updated: June 22, 9:42 AM ET
Wade steps up by stepping aside

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade celebrated this championship like no other member of the Miami Heat's Big Three could.

For him, there was some familiarity to it. He'd been there before, danced after the final horn before, soaked himself and teammates in champagne before and proudly hoisted that golden trophy before.

So as the seconds were ticking down on the clock Thursday night, with the game and the title well in hand, Wade put up two fingers on each hand and raised his eyebrows.

Wade has two championships now. It's something only he and Udonis Haslem can say on this Heat team, but it's nothing he'll flaunt too boldly, so as not to take away from the sense of accomplishment felt by LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the rest of the first-time champions.

Besides, in a sense, this ride felt very much like a new experience for Wade.

Unlike 2006, when Wade, in his third season, was still surprising the league with his immense talents and almost playing without a care in the world.

He had veteran teammates everywhere he looked playing the roles of leaders, mentors and teachers then. He had zero pressure to win it all -- certainly nothing compared to the albatross the 2011-12 Heat had hovering over them. The bumps on his road to that title included one difficult Game 7 loss to the Pistons in the conference finals the year before, but that's about it.

Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade had already celebrated one title in his career, but he said he'll enjoy this one more.

This time around, Wade was in a different role on the floor, in a different place in life and playing for so much more than himself.

"So much more," Wade said when asked how much more meaningful this championship is. "You know, I've been through a lot."

On the court, Wade suffered a dislocated shoulder that essentially ended the Heat's chance at repeating in 2007. He agonized through a miserable, injury-plagued season in which the Heat won 15 games. And right in the heart of his athletic prime, he could only carry a young Heat team to back-to-back first-round playoff exits.

When James and Bosh joined him in Miami, suddenly the pressure to succeed grew exponentially, from outside sources, of course, but also internally. He wanted this championship so badly for James and Bosh -- almost more than he wanted it for himself.

And to get that done, he actually had to do less on the court than he'd been used to.

"He had to step aside to an MVP player that was really going to drive us in so many ways," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And yet, he can still impact the game in winning ways as well as anybody in the league. Offensively, he's still making plays. He's added new dimensions now, he's a post threat.

"But to have the maturity to lead us with his voice, lead us on defense, still be the heartbeat of this team, still be the great talent that he was in 2006, but to drive us in a different way.

"It shows the evolution of a champion."

Game 5 was a perfect example of how Wade successfully worked within the framework of a LeBron-dominated offense. He was an efficient 7-for-12 from the floor, getting buckets off putbacks, working the baseline, getting passes from unselfish teammates and picking his spots.

Wade finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 blocks -- more blocks than any other player on the floor and the same total as the entire Oklahoma City Thunder team.

Early this season, Wade told LeBron to grab hold of the Heat as his own, and Wade will find a way to contribute.

"Don't worry about me," Wade told LeBron.

His second title is confirmation that he played that new role to perfection.

"This year, I'm playing with the best player in the world, and that doesn't take anything away from me at all," said Wade, who also played through nagging foot and knee injuries throughout the season. "I've played with a guy who's a Hall of Famer [Shaquille O'Neal], so I know how to be first and I know how to be second and whatever else. It was hard for me to do it, and no one will understand, but it was easy for me to do it for this team."

Wade is also a different man than he was in 2006.

Back then, he was married with one son, still getting used to the idea of being a mega-star in the NBA and recognizing everything that came with it.

Since then, he went through a turbulent divorce and won custody of his two sons but remains in an ongoing battle with his ex-wife regarding the boys.

Wade's sons, Zaire and Zion, were with their dad Thursday. Wade spent a lengthy moment huddled with them in the corner of the Heat's bench just before tipoff, then another celebratory moment with the boys just after the game ended.

If it wasn't obvious how much being a father to those boys meant to him before Thursday night, you could tell as he spoke about them after the game, his eyes watering and his voice softening as he discussed what they mean to him.

"If it wasn't for them, I don't know if I would be able to do what I do, continue to keep striving and pushing," Wade said. "They're the reason that I can wake up every morning, look myself in the mirror -- is because of them. I'm glad they can experience this and be part of this."

Wade's growth away from the court helped him become more of a natural leader on it.

Being a true, vocal leader is a concept Wade fought when O'Neal was traded to Phoenix in 2008 because, frankly, he never had to do it.

With this group, Wade was the de facto big brother within the Big Three because of his experience with the franchise and winning a title.

You could hear him ending arguments between James and Mario Chalmers on the court. And he often set the emotional tone whenever necessary. In Game 3, his energy matched that of the young Thunder, letting his team know exactly how it would have to play if the Heat were going to fend off Oklahoma City, even in Miami's home arena.

"His leadership this year was probably the biggest difference from 2006," Spoelstra said.

Wade has two championships now, but they might as well be for completely different accomplishments.

"I'm going to enjoy this one a lot more than I enjoyed 2006," Wade said. "When you get there early, you say, 'Oh man, we're going to do this again next year.' This is not guaranteed right here, man. You have to enjoy this."