Commentary

Wade's huge sacrifice for LeBron

Wade took a step back with one goal in mind this season: an NBA championship

Updated: May 16, 2012, 4:50 PM ET
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

Dwyane Wade, LeBron JamesAP Photo/David J. PhillipWill Dwyane Wade and LeBron James bring a title back to Miami?

Flat on his back after a post-practice shooting routine Friday, with his entire body behind the 3-point arc, Dwyane Wade starting flinging basketballs toward the rim.

A couple went in, but not enough to satisfy him, so he decided to sit up and sling overhead shots from that position.

Of his last five attempts, three went in.

All the while, LeBron James was facing a mob of media members to discuss the emboldened Pacers and their newfound trash-talking ways.

When it was Wade's turn to face the microphones, LeBron chose to take that spot behind the three-point line and tried to match his pal's mark.

"How many you make?" LeBron asked.

"Three out of five," Wade said.

"I got that," LeBron responded.

Competition. Always a competition. Even between these two, the most talented teammates in the NBA, it's never OK to be second best.

Frankly, that's what much of the world thought their experience as teammates would be, two players with seemingly limitless potential trying to match each other on the floor, neither one willing to accept the Scottie Pippen role. Just a couple of Jordans trying to make it work. And for the most part, throughout Year 1 together, it was exactly that. They weren't trying to one-up each other, but the Jordan approach was all they knew, so they stuck to it, even if they said it wasn't intentional.

And then, just like that, it wasn't anymore.

It was early January, just a couple of weeks into this rushed and compact NBA season, as Wade was nursing a foot injury and watching James dominate without him, that the oldest member of the Super Friends decided he didn't have to be that super -- at least not by statistical standards.

Wade knew the "let's take turns dominating" approach got them within two wins of an NBA title. But what he saw from the bench in the early part of the season, he thought, was even better.

LeBron looked like the two-time MVP he was in Cleveland. Only, frighteningly enough, even more efficient.

It was 32 points, nine assists and seven rebounds against New Jersey. Then 33, 10 and five against the Spurs. And 31, eight and eight against the Lakers. And there were more just like that. If LeBron could do that while dominating the ball, Wade thought, why exactly is it necessary for him to get equal touches?

There wasn't a good answer.

So Wade gave in. He fought off his ego and decided he'd take the supporting role in this potential blockbuster flick.

He told LeBron to play like the MVP he was.

And whaddya know? LeBron's MVP again.

"I just had some time to sit back and think a lot," Wade said. "I just realized what we're playing for, and what I'm playing for.

"LeBron is probably the most talented player we've seen in a while, but how good can we be? Are we going to be good if me and him are both scoring 27 a night? Yeah, we're gonna be good, but it would be too much, 'OK, it's your turn, now it's your turn.'

"I wanted to give him the opportunity where he didn't have to think about that. It's kind of like I told him, 'Listen, I'll find my way. Don't worry about me. I'll be there. But you go out and be the player that we want you to be.'"

It's not as if Wade ever truly fought the idea of handing the reins of the Heat franchise to LeBron.

But this team, this town, was all Wade's for seven years, so he knew no other way. There was a sense in South Florida that LeBron was coming to join Wade's party, Wade's family, and it would be presumptuous and rude of LeBron to assume a greater role.

So they essentially took turns doing what they knew best. There were times when it looked fluid. But there were other times, even deep into the playoffs, when they still looked like two superb talents waiting for their turn at-bat.

"I thought me and him did a good job of trying to communicate and talk, but it was still unnatural because we're both so used to it being our show," Wade said.

And it was all OK, because despite some sensationalized bumps along the way, the Heat made it to the NBA Finals and twice held a lead in the series.

But the surprising collapse that followed brought to light the inefficiency of that strategy. If this union were going to work to its full potential, it would require someone understanding how it could.

For Wade, that meant understanding LeBron a whole lot better.

It was during those Finals that Wade started the process, even if that wasn't his intention. It remains one of the standout moments of that series, in the final minutes of Game 3 in Dallas -- a game the Heat would go on to win -- when Wade looked to be scolding LeBron for not being aggressive enough, for giving in to a slump he'd found himself in and not trying hard enough to make a difference in the game.

It might have been the first time LeBron had ever been treated like that by a teammate, at least in that public a setting. And maybe he didn't like it much. He certainly never managed to shake that inexplicable mental fog he was in through the final four games of the series. But all Wade was doing was trying to get a reaction from his teammate. Trying to convince him he was too good to submit to a funk, or a fear, or whatever it was that had taken control of LeBron at that point.

"I don't remember what I said to him, but I know my message I was trying to get across," Wade said. "I know the game of basketball, and I know the ball doesn't go in the way you want it to all the time and your rhythm might be a little messed up. But the one thing that I was trying to get from him was for him to make some kind of game-changing plays, because he's so gifted. I was just trying to beat it in his head as much as I could at that time.

"I don't know if he's ever had anyone really be on him like that, or confident enough that they could say something to him. I think he appreciated it later, and I think that's why our relationship now is so much stronger."

If James did indeed appreciate that tongue-lashing after the fact, it's in large part because Wade began to understand LeBron better.

They'd been friends for years, but Wade never truly recognized the stresses that come with being LeBron James.

The brutal heckling. The constant criticism. The intense pressure.

"I read Twitter," Wade said. "When I turn on the TV, I know everything comes back to LeBron James being a punch line. It's just everything that piles up, and I'm like, 'How does he deal with it without having, really, someone who can be his outlet?' I'm the closest thing to his outlet, and sometimes I don't get it."

So Wade's goal became simple. Make LeBron comfortable.

If he doesn't have a safe place within his own team, where would he find one? And you know what makes LeBron comfortable? Dominating on the basketball court. Not waiting his turn to dominate. Just doing it as often as possible. Putting up MVP performances.

The moment of clarity Wade had in early January would help make LeBron completely relax. Even after LeBron insisted coming into the season that he was a new, improved man, it would still take Wade's concession to make LeBron really feel like himself in Miami.

"I see the way he fixes his jersey, the way he lays everything out before a game. He's the most mental athlete I've ever seen," Wade said, meaning of course that LeBron was cerebral and maybe a little obsessive, but not insane.

"I didn't want to be a part of messing with his mental at all. I wanted to ease it."

For Wade, that meant less touches. That meant finding a rhythm in his midrange game would be significantly more difficult. That meant a drop in scoring. But all for the right cause.

"It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do in sports was to, in a sense, take a step back," Wade said. "A lot of people don't understand. They'll say, 'Why would you do that?' To me, I want more success from winning. I don't want another scoring title. I'm just trying to win.

"I felt that it had to come from nobody but me, to say, 'Go ahead, man. You're the best player in the world. We'll follow your lead.' Once I said that, I thought he kind of exhaled a little bit."

That MVP trophy LeBron hoisted in front of the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd on Sunday was the most significant evidence yet that Wade took the proper route by stepping back. But it won't be officially confirmed until both are posing beside the Larry O'Brien trophy as champions. Because Wade's unselfish act wasn't just about helping LeBron get another MVP or his first championship. There was, of course, a selfish element.

For all the discussion about LeBron starting his ring collection, or Kobe Bryant matching MJ with his sixth, or even Tim Duncan getting a fifth, Wade has certain goals for himself, too. He has his own legacy to leave.

"Me, personally, I've always told myself, if I can win three championships, if I can retire with at least three, then I've had an unbelievable career," he said. "If I were to retire right now with one, I've done more than a lot of players before me. But I've always said to myself, if I can get three total, I've done all right for myself."

For that to happen, it'll require LeBron to be at his best for the remainder of these playoffs -- a truth made more obvious now that Chris Bosh's abdominal injury makes his availability a question mark.

And yes, that includes the Finals, should the Heat reach that point again.

"I think he'll be different," Wade said. "Who knows what that difference is going to be. We all hope it's just that monster LeBron. But we'll see.

"I'm very confident he's a different player than he was last year and he'll have a different mentality if he gets back to the Finals this year."

If Wade's ego needs a boost after settling for the sidekick role, he can be encouraged to know he played a significant part in turning LeBron into who he's been this season.

Or he can just point to that impromptu shooting contest they played Friday. Wade hit 3 of 5 seated 3-pointers. LeBron managed only one. In that setting, it's OK that they're still in competition with each other.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.