By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI — It was an hour or so after the Miami Heat punched their ticket back to the Eastern Conference finals, and a question was asked about the perceived demise of Dwyane Wade’s abilities.
LeBron James was not pleased.
“He’s a Hall of Famer. He has two rings,” James said. “He doesn’t to prove himself to anyone. No one.”
Maybe, maybe not.
But just in case, Wade ignored his aching right knee and put those oft-questioned skills on full display to earn his fifth trip to the East finals.
Over the last 5½ minutes of Miami’s 94-91 second-round clinching win over the Chicago Bulls, Wade was the only Heat player with a field goal, going 3 for 3. He had three rebounds, half Miami’s total in that span, along with his team’s only blocked shot. And with two short floaters — set up by the “Eurostep” move that he’s made a trademark — along with a strong dunk after a rebound, Wade offered a reminder that he’s still more than capable of elite moments.
“I always try to overcome,” Wade said. “I understand certain things will be said. But I’m harder on myself than anybody.”
He’s averaging only 13 points per game in this postseason, by far his lowest clip in nine trips to the playoffs, and simply could not care less about what the stat sheet says in that regard. He’s taken only 24 free throws in the entire postseason, which is one less than his single-game high from the line set back in the 2006 NBA Finals against Dallas.
But when Wade is on the floor in these playoffs, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per game. When he’s not on the floor, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 4.7 points per game. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra often brings numerical intricacies into his way of thinking, but he finds those numbers to tell a clear and simple story.
“He never makes excuses for anything and he’s giving us everything he’s got and he’s giving us minutes that help us win,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the bottom line.”
If excuses were to be made, this baffling issue with Wade’s right knee would provide a decent supply of them.
The saga is now in its third month, after he took some hits during games against Boston and Orlando back in March. He sat out a game March 24, with the Heat saying at the time that they did not believe the issue was all that serious. Wade later said it was three bone bruises around his right kneecap, and that it was basically all a case of wrong-place, wrong-time, bad luck.
And the issue remains paramount now, even prompting some speculation before Game 5 that Wade would be sitting out the potential clincher to rest. Wade said that was not an option.
“It’s the time of year where you’ve got to do what you can,” said Wade, who got the tape on his knee re-done before entering the game in the fourth quarter, because sweat loosened the original tape job and he wanted to be at his best for the comeback push.
When the Bulls look at the tape of the closing minutes, when their chance to extend the series went awry, they’ll likely wish that Wade wasn’t out there.
Wade was the only Miami starter to make a field goal in the final quarter, after the first five baskets of the last 12 minutes were made by Heat reserves — sparking what became a 30-16 run to end the game, and the Bulls’ season.
Then it was Wade’s time to be the closer, and he delivered.
With Miami up 84-83, Wade set up on the right wing and was freed by a pick set by Shane Battier against Richard Hamilton, shook his way clear of Carlos Boozer and made a 10-footer. On the next possession, Wade used almost the same move to get down the middle of the lane, this time faking out Hamilton and Joakim Noah, for another short floater that put Miami up 88-84.
The highlight came about 90 seconds later. Norris Cole missed a jumper, and Wade ran past Hamilton and Nate Robinson to get to the rim untouched in anticipation of a rebound. Wade went up, dunked the ball with two hands, landed and spun around in celebration.
Knee pain, nowhere to be found. Doubted all season because of his declining numbers — even though he was one of only four players in the league to average at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds — Wade made sure the Heat would close out Chicago and earn a trip to the East finals.
“I have to overcome different things,” Wade said. “This is a part of my journey and hopefully one day when I walk away from this game I get the respect that my game deserves, whatever that may be. So I just try to go out and do what I can for my teammates, hurt or not hurt, and try to win. That’s all.”
It was that answer that got James fired up.
For 80 seconds, the league’s four-time MVP played defense in support of his teammate and close friend, as Wade sat to his left and just listened to the words of praise.
“It’s a Catch-22,” James said. “If he doesn’t play, then you guys are like, ‘Why are you not in uniform? It’s a playoff game. Why is he not playing?’ When he does play and he’s not scoring 20 points, it’s ‘D-Wade shouldn’t be out there.’ I don’t really care for it too much. … As his teammate, as his brother, man, I love the fight he continues to give. When he’s out on the floor, no matter what the stat sheet says, he’s a threat.”