By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI — Dwyane Wade was sitting with his mother after a pregame workout a few days ago, a rare quiet moment in a nearly empty arena that would soon be filled by 20,000 screaming Miami Heat fans.
She was wearing a pendant shaped like one of her son’s two Heat championship rings, which probably explains why their chat revolved around the looming NBA playoffs. They talked about the 2006 title and how that paid tribute to ring-starved veterans like Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton. They talked about last year’s crown, which served as the long-awaited coronation for LeBron James.
“What’s the third one going to be for?” Jolinda Wade asked.
Wade thought for a moment, then said, “This one’s for me.”
He doesn’t say those words in an egotistical way, but more in the sense that a third championship would allow for the sense of accomplishment he craved when he came into the league 10 years ago. Wade is a perennial All-Star who has been to the NBA Finals three times already, and when the playoffs open this weekend he and the Heat will be heavily favored to get there again.
He’s rich, which he says he always wanted. He’s famous, which he says he never wanted. His on-court legacy is secure.
All that’s left, he said, is winning more titles. And the quest for the player who wears No. 3 to win ring No. 3 starts this weekend, when the Heat will open an Eastern Conference first-round series at home against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I feel like I need three rings. After that, I’m playing with church’s money,” Wade told The Associated Press. “I’ve always said that if I can end my career with at least three rings … I’ve already had a special career, but it would put me in that special group that only a few can say that they’re in. It would mean a lot. It would mean a lot. It would mean a lot.”
In a year where some say things like his scoring numbers — 21.2 points per game, his lowest since his rookie season but still eighth-best in the NBA — were proof that his skills are vanishing, Wade is shooting better than 50 percent for the first time. And only four NBA players are averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game this season, that group including Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, James and Wade.
No, he’s not the player who will average 30 points per game anymore. No, he doesn’t always dunk as spectacularly as he once did. No, the Heat offense doesn’t run exclusively through him nowadays, and hasn’t for about three years since James’ arrival in Miami.
What Wade thinks that people tend to forget is that most of those so-called signs of decline came at his own choosing, byproducts of him going out and helping convince James and Chris Bosh to come to Miami in the first place.
“I mean, let’s talk about the obvious,” Wade said. “Guys get older. That’s obvious. Yes, I’ve gotten older. Yes, my game has changed. But let’s talk production. I’m a productive player. My numbers show it. I buy into the efficiency numbers — more than I should and it drives me crazy that I buy into it. I look around the league and see guys shooting 41 percent and they’re getting patted on the back. I’m shooting 52 percent and I’m on the decline?”
He says these words while sitting on a leather sofa, facing a photo on the wall that was snapped about nine years ago of him trying a windmill dunk. His hair looked different then. His arms and legs of those days look downright scrawny compared to his physique now. Knee problems, shoulder problems, divorce proceedings, custody fights, they all were years away.
He’s not getting those “BIW” texts from Heat President Pat Riley anymore, the acronym that meant Best In World, since even the most ardent Wade supporter would likely agree that James would be the Miami player deserving of that title now.
But the way Wade has taken what appears to be a supporting role to James at times is quite possibly the biggest reason why the Heat are chasing a third straight trip to The Finals.
“In any field, any profession, you’re going to deal with egos,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And if you’re the face of your organization and then you willingly take a step back and sacrifice to add more talent so the organization or your corporation can become better, I don’t know how many people will be willing to do that. You have to be very, very mature. If it were easy, more players would try to attempt what we’re doing right now.”
Thing is, it’s not easy, even though Wade has made it seem that way.
He gave up money, nearly $20 million in guaranteed salary, when he signed his most recent deal with Miami in order to make all the other roster moves fall into place. He’s given up shots; he took a career-high 1,739 shots five seasons ago, which is only 176 fewer attempts than he’s taken in the last two seasons combined. He’s given up a huge portion of the spotlight; remember, even President Barack Obama said earlier this year that it’s James’ world now.
“I didn’t want that life anymore,” Wade said. “I want a different life. This is the life that I choose. Sometimes it’s frustrating because I know I’ve got more, but team success is way more fulfilling than the individual. I’ve totally changed my game. I tried to do it for what I feel is the best for this team. Was it the best for me individually? Maybe not. But I did what I think is best for this team.”
And in the playoffs, he’ll try to keep doing the same.
A year ago, the Heat were dealing with the sting of losing the 2011 Finals, along with all the can-LeBron-ever-win questions. They were on the ropes against Indiana in the second round last year, needed to win two elimination games to top Boston in a ultra-competitive East finals, then lost Game 1 of the Finals to Oklahoma City before winning the last four games of the season.
This time around, the Heat have the best record in basketball. The question no longer is “Can they win?” It’s now closer to “How can they lose?”
To Wade, that’s the playoff challenge. Finding an edge last year was easy. Finding an edge this time around will be more difficult, but necessary.
“I think the thing that’s going to get us over that hump is really understanding the opportunity that we have and not letting it slip, because this kind of team, this kind of moment, they don’t come around often,” Wade said. “Understanding the importance of this is what we’ll probably have to pull from. This is historic, what we’re embarking on. That’s got to mean something to us as a team. So let’s go.”