MIAMI -- It started out as a friendship for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. That evolved into a partnership. Now, the two Miami Heat stars have themselves a marriage and all the ups and downs that come with it.
As they head toward their third anniversary, they've taken on the personality of a couple. Sometimes they spat, sometimes they don't talk to each other, sometimes they're in perfect harmony and most of the time, at the end of the day, they're happy they're still together.
If they are able to share another title with a Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, you can count on them standing on the stage and smiling like proud parents, cradling a trophy that required many layers of patience, conflict and compromise.
There has been some recent attention paid to the fact that the Heat have played better in the Finals when James and Wade are not on the floor with each other. The raw numbers after Game 6 show the Heat have been outscored by 56 points by the Spurs when they've been in the game together and James is plus-46 with Wade on the bench.
That is not indicative of anything other than an ebb in what is now a 270-game body of work of playing together over these past three seasons. It might play a role in how coach Erik Spoelstra sets up a game plan for the biggest game of the season, but it is not a referendum on the James/Wade experiment.
For the Heat to have the best chance, Spoelstra might have to consider sitting Wade more because a lineup with three shooters, something Wade is not, seems to suit James against the Spurs more than it does against other teams. Especially with Wade now battling a new knee injury after banging his left one into Manu Ginobili in Game 6.
Then again, it was Wade who rose to the occasion in Game 7 of the conference finals, putting up 21 points to help the Heat even reach this round. In the other victorious Game 7 Wade and James played in, last season against the Boston Celtics, Wade delivered 23 points and a strong all-around performance to help James carry the team to victory. It's hard to dispute the formula.
It's just another example of the challenge in finding a balance between the two, a challenge that probably will never end. Because they're so alike, especially when it comes to controlling the ball, they sometimes rub each other the wrong way. It's happened several times in this postseason, and there was even a moment in the huge comeback victory Tuesday night, when Wade and James had cross words on the sideline during a timeout. It wasn't a big deal because it wasn't new.
"I think it's been a great achievement to be in three Finals in a row, because the hard part people don't get to see," Wade said. "What the hard part of this is, everyone sees the names and says, 'Oh, they should be' -- but it's a lot harder than that."
Sometimes Wade goes long stretches without getting shots. Sometimes Wade comes and gets the ball from James when he wants to run a play. Sometimes they disagree on strategy. Sometimes Wade tries to set an aggressive example for James only to see him play passively. It plays out in rolled eyes, turned backs and sometimes sharp words. Sometimes they set bad examples for each other, not getting back on defense because they're complaining to officials.
During the last round, James stung Wade when he referred to playing in "Cleveland mode" during a stretch in which Wade was struggling to score and essentially saw his playing time cut. Wade retorted by publicly imploring James to share the ball more, stopping just short of labeling him a ball hog.
Yet they also have moments, sometimes weeks or months on end, when their games mesh and it looks like they're made to play together. It happened last season in the playoffs, when they whitewashed the Indiana Pacers by attacking them in waves. It happened during the Heat's 27-game win streak this season when James and Wade took turns winning the player of the week award just as they took turns battering opponents.
It happened in Game 4 of these Finals, when they combined for 65 points in a tandem of domination that brought to mind the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen June showings that they loosely wanted to follow when they signed together in 2010.
"I only came here -- my only goal is to win championships," James said. "I said it, this is what I came here for. This is what I wanted to be a part of this team for. ... We're not entitled to win it. We have to work for it. So that's what I'm here for."
Earlier this season, Spoelstra perfectly summed up the challenges his stars face when he said: "In order to make our opponents uncomfortable, we have to be uncomfortable first."
Wade has taken on that sacrifice a little more, his role taking a backseat. Some of it is natural: Wade has battled age and injuries while James has entered his prime, racking up two most valuable player awards with Wade acting as the decided wingman.
That's a deal everyone has accepted, even if Wade still passively groans about not getting as many opportunities and reminisces to the media occasionally about the old days when he used to be the team leader in shots. That pride and James' bouts of malaise at inopportune moments are a recipe for little dustups.
At times, it creates speculation that the duo won't last forever. Just as at times, it seems unfair that they get to play on the same team. But it also might create a back-to-back championship team.
"Right now we're in the middle of it. We're just enjoying each other. We're enjoying this opportunity we've all had to play with each other," Wade said. "And I think people need to enjoy it a little bit, too. Because one day it won't be here, and people are going to miss it. Let's stop getting rid of it while it's still here."