1. Dwyane Wade Soars On His Proving Ground
MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade still gets territorial.
Even at age 31 with nine All-Star selections, two championship rings and one NBA Finals MVP, there are nights Wade walks onto the court with something to prove.
There's something to prove to himself. And more to prove to the league and some critics who suggest he's lost a step and is firmly on the backside of his career.
But especially something to prove to younger players gaining on his heels, and even an older rival out West who still battles with Wade for distinction as the NBA's preeminent shooting guard.
So if it appeared Wednesday night that Wade had a little extra lift in his legs, a bit more swagger in his step and a lot more aggression in his overall game, it wasn't an illusion.
James Harden and the Houston Rockets were in town Wednesday night. And Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers arrive for a nationally televised showdown Sunday. That means in a span of five days, Wade will have faced two of the other most lethal scoring guards in the league.
"Of course you have to be up for James Harden or Kobe Bryant, or they'll try to embarrass you," Heat forward LeBron James said when asked Wednesday night about Wade's motivation this week. "It's part of the competitive nature of all of us when you have some of the best coming into your building. You have to play at a higher level."
Wade has played his best against his toughest rivals at the position. The Heat are 3-0 against the Rockets and Lakers this season, with Wade shooting 50 percent and averaging 25.6 points, 6.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals and a block in those games.
To suggest Wade still gets up for these challenges would be an understatement. That's why Wade was eager to allow his performance to speak for itself following his most complete game of the season in Miami's 114-108 victory that extended its home-court winning streak to five games and improved the Heat to 20-3 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
In what evolved into arguably the best shootouts of the season between elite guards, Wade closed with 31 points, eight assists, five rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 35 minutes. He needed every bit of that production -- plus 32 points from James -- to offset a relentlessly remarkable effort from Harden, who had 36 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in 41 minutes.
Wade and Harden didn't defend each other for much of the game until the final seconds. That's when Wade's block of Harden's jumper essentially secured Miami's victory and thwarted the Rockets' late rally from a 17-point deficit.
Even after all of these games and accolades, moments like Wednesday night are still a point of pride for Wade -- probably more so than they've been in the past, considering the questions he's faced after recovering from offseason knee surgery that still requires rehab and strengthening.
"[Harden] has a franchise where he's the main guy, and here, I'm one of three now," Wade said. "My opportunities come different than they did. But when I do get a chance to showcase that, I obviously want to prove to myself and to my teammates that I'm still a player that everybody has come accustomed to seeing, especially now that I'm healthy and feeling as good as I've felt in two years."
Wade knows he can't turn back the clock every night of the regular season. But he can offer steady reminders to skeptics who might doubt if he's the NBA's top 2-guard.
In fairness, it wasn't just Harden who brought out the best in Wade on Wednesday. Another factor was the absence of perennial All-Star forward Chris Bosh, who missed the game because of flu-like symptoms. That required more heavy lifting from both Wade and James, who took 18 shots apiece and combined to shoot 20-of-36 from the field.
Harden scored 16 of his 36 in the fourth quarter and had four teammates who also scored in double figures. But it wasn't enough to overcome Wade, who has the luxury of playing alongside a three-time MVP in James, who is in the midst of the best shooting season of his decorated career.
For Harden, a 23-year-old sensation who is fifth in the league in scoring and will be a first-time All-Star next week in Houston, facing the Heat continues to be an unfair fight. After falling to Wade, James and the Heat in the Finals last season with Oklahoma City, Harden's Rockets were swept by Miami in the two-game series this season.
"He's a tremendous scorer," Harden said of Wade. "They're a tremendous team. They've got a lot of guys over there that can score. I was just doing whatever it takes to keep my team in the game, whether it's making shots or making passes, trying to rebound and just do whatever it takes."
Wade sees a lot of himself in Harden, who is in his fourth season. Wade led the Heat to a title in his third season and became an superstar while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal in Miami. But soon after, Shaq's departure left Wade the burden of having to carry a transitioning team.
Wade sees in Harden the same type of look he used to have during his early matchups against Kobe Bryant.
"Yeah, young and up-and-coming guys who have a bright future. I remember being in that position, going up against guys like Kobe," Wade said. "And you look forward to it. I do as well. I still do now. And I enjoy it."
So much so, that it was part of the reason Wade arrived at the arena nearly two hours before the Heat's morning shootaround before Wednesday's game. Yes, it's Harden-Kobe week for Wade. But it's also about methodical knee maintenance and conditioning to gear up for the stretch run.
What resulted Wednesday was Wade's fourth 30-point game of the season and only the second time on the year both he and James each hit that mark in the same game. Wade also attacked the basket and made all 13 of his free-throw attempts, which was the first time he's made at least that many from the line without a miss in a home game.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the only other time in his career that Wade reached his statistical totals (31 points, 8 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks) from Wednesday's game came on Jan. 19, 2012, against Kobe and the Lakers.
"You know how it is," said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, the only member of Miami's team who was with Wade during the 2005-06 title run. "At one point, D-Wade was the little brother, knocking on the door of the big brothers. Now, he's the bigger brother, and all of these little brothers are knocking on his door, competing, trying to beat him. He'll continue to establish himself against those guys."
Haslem then paused for a moment and shook his head as he reflected on how fast time flies in a league in which even elite players rapidly transition from hunters to the hunted.
"At the end of the day, Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade," Haslem added. "And now, just like back then, [when] we need a bucket or a big game, we can depend on him."
Harden proved Wednesday night just why he's widely considered the best shooting guard in the league under 30. But with Kobe, 34, challenging for the season's scoring title in his 17th season, and with Wade shooting the best field goal percentage of his career, don't expect either elder statesman at shooting guard to give ground anytime soon.
"Nope," Wade said. "Because, right now, I want to continue to feel that way. I just try to stay on it. It's crazy. I've done so much the last two days to stay feeling good. You get nicked up from game to game, so you have to do certain things. So I do what I have to do, and I'll continue to do it. You continue to put yourself in position so you can do things like have the kind of games you had tonight."
If this is rivalry week for Wade, he's ready for the challenge.
After all, there's still personal turf to protect.
Michael Wallace covers the Miami Heat for ESPN.com. Follow him @WallaceNBA_ESPN
2. Around the Association
MVP: Al Jefferson started slow but finished with a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double without turning the ball over once. It was a quintessentially Jeffersonian showcase for the man who might be on the trade block.
X factor: Enes Kanter collected 17 points, 9 rebounds and a career-high 5 blocks in just 17 minutes. For the second season in a row, the Jazz appear to make their best lineup decisions through player attrition.
That was ... clearly the second night of a back-to-back for Milwaukee. Brandon Jennings and Ersan Illyasova put up 17 points apiece and Sam Dalembert notched a double-double (10 pts, 11 rebs), but the Bucks were running in mud all night.
MVP: Danny Green hit a career-high eight 3-pointers on 12 attempts to finish with 28 points. After a grumpy Gregg Popovich yanked Green early in the third quarter for a good four seconds, Green returned to score 21 second-half points and hit four triples in the fourth quarter, pushing the Spurs past the Timberwolves.
X factor: With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili nursing injuries, Minnesota knew that San Antonio point guard Tony Parker would take more than his average of 15 shots a game. He did, using 23 shots to score 27 points to go along with eight dimes.
That was ... promising. In the loss, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio recorded 11 assists, hitting double-digits for the second game in a row and only the second time this season in his 21st appearance since returning from an ACL injury.
MVP: O.J. Mayo. Shooting 11-of-14 for 28 points, Mayo owned the right side of the floor, hitting all six shots from the right wing and 3 of 4 from deep. Mayo's red-hot shooting opened up the Mavs' offense throughout the game.
X factor: Vince Carter. Mayo was superb, but Carter stole the show, getting multiple throwback dunks that evoked Vinsanity, including a vintage reverse slam. Carter also contributed cold-blooded 3s and a dagger pull-up on the wing that sealed the game.
Defining moment: Carter's 3-pointer at the end of the third keyed a steady 18-4 Mavericks run lasting more than eight minutes. The Blazers went 1-9 from 3 and their only make came late in Portland's desperate comeback attempt.
MVP: Greivis Vasquez. The Hornets' point guard scored 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting and handed out 12 assists. He kept New Orleans in this game early when the rest of the team was struggling.
X factor: Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu posted a double-double with 11 rebounds and 16 points on nine shots. The Suns had no answer defensively for his athleticism and poise. Al-Farouq is averaging nearly nine rebounds per game in 2013.
That was ... anticlimactic: After an entertaining and high-scoring first half, the Suns and Hornets went ice cold down the stretch. The teams combined for fewer than 30 points in the final frame while shooting worse than 40 percent from the field.
MVP: Kevin Garnett. The Big Ticket delivered his best game of the season for Boston, putting the C's offense on his back with a season-high 27 points and 10 rebounds as the Celtics escaped Toronto with their fifth straight win, all coming without an injured Rajon Rondo.
LVP: Rudy Gay. Toronto's offense stalled out in the fourth quarter as the Raptors' newest addition could not find the bottom of the net, going just 1-for-9 from the field over the final 12 minutes. Gay managed to score just two points against Boston's stifling defense in the frame.
X factor: Leandro Barbosa. The speedy guard has seen his playing time increase with Rondo out of the lineup and he made the most of his minutes against Toronto. Barbosa sparked Boston's fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the frame.
MVP: Kevin Durant. That the MVP candidate can seem so average -- by his standards, mind you -- while casually going for 25 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in 31 minutes is a true testament to just how dominant he's been this season.
X factor: The final numbers don't show it, but Serge Ibaka was just as influential to this OKC win as Durant or Russell Westbrook. He had 11 points and 4 blocks in the game's opening quarter, spurring the Thunder to an early lead that proved insurmountable.
That was ... predictable. Facing a team like OKC on the second leg of a road back-to-back without Andrew Bogut and Jarrett Jack, a Warriors win always seemed unlikely. A late arrival due to travel complications only made things even more difficult.
MVP: Brook Lopez. Although this game was marred by sluggish offense, someone has to be MVP, and Lopez gets the honor. Active with 9 boards on the night and quick with a number of post moves, Lopez was the lone consistent offensive weapon for Brooklyn. His slithering bank shot on the low block with 18 seconds left sealed the victory for the Nets.
Defining moment: Andre Drummond's back. The sensational rookie only played five minutes in this game before being pulled due to back pain in the first quarter. His absence triggered a disastrous domino effect. Jason Maxiell and Greg Monroe subsequently were plagued with foul trouble, allowing Brooklyn to dominate the interior for large stretches of the game.
That was ... atmospheric. Brooklyn reserve Mirza Teletovic took just three shots all night. He also happened to air-ball every single one. Even more embarrassing is that all three air balls came on back-to-back-to-back possessions in the third quarter.
MVP: LeBron James might have started slow, but he took over in the second half, racking up a monster line of 32 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 game taken over. That makes for a superstar line.
X factor: James Harden flirted with a triple-double, notching 36 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. He scored 11 of the last 13 points for Houston but couldn't put them over the top.
Defining moment: Four Miami 3s (two from LeBron) in the span of two minutes pushed the Heat lead to 16 in the third quarter from which the Rockets never quite recovered. It was close, but Miami executed better.
3. Wednesday's Best
Dwyane Wade, Heat:
Showing he still has more than a little in the tank, Wade went for 31 points (making all 13 free throws), 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks in Miami's win over James Harden and Houston.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Shooting by Sixers starters:
Going 15-for-59 (24.4 percent) from the field is not going to win many ballgames. Evan Turner led the brick brigade by going 1-for-10 in the 88-69 loss to Indy.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"He just wants people to like him. He doesn't want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing."
-- Kobe Bryant, on injured Lakers center Dwight Howard in an interview with ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan.
8. Late Wall
9. Stat Check
The Heat defeated the Rockets by a score of 114-108 on Wednesday night in a game filled with masterful performances by star players. James Harden led the Rockets with 36 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists, but he was outdone by Miami's dynamic duo of LeBron James, who had 32 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, and Dwyane Wade, who contributed 31 points, 5 rebounds and 8 assists.
It was the first NBA non-overtime game in nearly 23 years that featured three players with at least 30 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. The last time that happened in a regulation game was on March 14, 1990, when the Lakers' Magic Johnson and Philadelphia's Charles Barkley and Johnny Dawkins all did it in a Sixers win.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around The Association
MVP: The 'Bockers have had trouble with quick guards this season (to put it mildly) and John Wall continued the trend, slashing to the rim at will and/or finding wide-open shooters to the tune of 21 points and nine dimes.
X factor: The former Knick (possibly during the William Taft administration) Trevor Ariza was scorching from downtown (see below), nailing 5 of 7 and utilizing his quickness and length on defense to fluster and frustrate an off Carmelo Anthony.
LVP: Coming into the game, Washington ranked 25th in 3-point shooting (.340). But tonight it hit 11 of 20 bombs, aided in large part by the sluggish New Yorkers' inability to close out, which granted myriad Wizards enough time to balance their checkbooks before launching a trey.
MVP: Jeff Teague was one of three Hawks with double-doubles, leading the Hawks with 22 points and 13 assists. The effort from Teague was his fourth 20-10 game on the season.
Defining moment: The Hawks have had trouble recently with coming out flat after halftime when they have a sizable lead; not this time. Atlanta quickly extended a 10-point halftime advantage to a 22-point lead after an Anthony Tolliver 3-pointer.
That was ... efficient: That Hawks shot better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3 in John Hollinger's return to Atlanta. Considering Hollinger used to lament on the Hawks' efficiency, this was a great effort from the Hawks to get the win.
MVP: Roy Hibbert might not be the best center $58 million can buy, but he was plenty good enough on Wednesday. The 7-footer controlled the interior against the short-handed Sixers, scoring 18 to go along with 14 boards, a quintet of blocks and a brilliant alley-oop to Paul George. Roy Hibbert: He's not just a multimillionaire, he's a lob creator.
That was ... a silver lining: With Thaddeus Young sidelined with a hamstring injury, rookie Arnett Moultrie got his first extended look of the season. He'll get more. In 21 minutes, Moultrie was energetic, surprisingly active defensively and finished with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
X factor: There are activities a lot less rigorous than playing in an NBA basketball game that are impossible to do well three days in a row, as Charles Barkley can tell you, but the Pacers didn't let this discourage them. On the third night of a back-to-back-to-back, Indiana held the Sixers to 36 percent shooting, didn't lose a quarter and won its fifth straight.
MVP: Eric Bledsoe. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford all sidelined, the bulk of the possessions went to Eric Bledsoe -- and he made good use of them. Bledsoe dropped in a career-high 27 points and tossed in six steals for good measure.
X factor: Turnovers. At one point in the second quarter, both teams had as many turnovers as made field goals. This was ugly throughout, but the Clippers straightened up their act in the second half and cut down on the mistakes to grab the win.
This was ... hideous. The Clippers and Magic were both short-handed, but let's not make excuses. I counted at least seven air balls, and both teams hovered below 40 percent shooting most of the night.
MVP: Tristan Thompson's offensive game continues to develop at a rapid clip. He exhibited all manner of post moves -- running hooks, teardrops, turnarounds -- on his way to 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting and nine rebounds.
LVP: The Bobcats' defense was ghastly in this one. During the third quarter, when the game was at least somewhat in doubt, the Cavaliers' field goal percentage was hovering around 65 percent.
Turning point: The Cavs controlled the opening period, but they truly pulled away with a barrage of 3-pointers early in the second quarter that put the Bobcats in the rearview mirror for good.