MIAMI – The last time Dwyane Wade played in an NBA Finals game, he needed fluid drained from his left knee and eight hours of intense game-day therapy just to put on his uniform. He later described it in a single word.
“Hell,” Wade said.
It was also worth it, after he scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and hoisted his third Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Now, unlike last year, Wade is not dealing with any injuries heading into the Miami’s finals rematch against the San Antonio Spurs. At 32 years old and with 866 NBA games already on his playing odometer, Wade still deals with plenty of aches and pains, good days and bad days, and he basically has a standing appointment in the Heat training room.
But compared to last season’s NBA Finals, his knees are good as new.
“He’s a big-time, huge piece to our puzzle,” four-time NBA MVP and Heat star LeBron James said. “To have him out there in the groove that he’s in right now, it’s going to help us.”
The Heat is looking to win its third straight title and Wade is on the cusp of joining a list of alltime NBA greats. There are just seven players with four championships and at least one NBA Finals MVP award on their resumes: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Havlicek, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and the Spurs’ Tim Duncan.
Wade could be the eighth person in that club.
“We just want to continue to add to what we’re accomplishing,” Wade said.
Almost forgotten amid all the memories of Wade limping about during last year’s playoffs – he whacked what was his “good” knee at this time last year, the surgically repaired left one, in a collision with the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili during Game 6 of the finals – is he had big games when Miami needed him. Through his first 14 games of the 2013 playoffs, Wade was averaging 13.6 points. In the final eight games of that postseason run, starting with Game 7 against Indiana, he averaged 19.8 points. And in the past four games of the finals, he averaged 23.5 points against the Spurs to close the series. As his knees became worse, Wade seemed to be better.
“He still found a way last year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He really did. He had some of his biggest games not only in the finals, but Game 7, we didn’t think necessarily he was going to even play that game in the Eastern Conference finals.”
This year, the Heat tried to leave nothing to chance with Wade’s health. The so-called maintenance plan for Wade – limiting his minutes to save his knees – kicked in on the second night of the regular season. He wound up missing 28 games, to ensure that he would be good to go in the playoffs.
The results can’t be argued. Wade is averaging 18.7 points on 52 percent shooting, Miami is 12-3 in the playoffs and when receiving more than three days rest, the perennial All-Star has had games of 23, 14, 27 and 23 points on combined 60 percent shooting.
“Dwyane is playing great,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Tuesday. “He looks a lot more spry and ready to go then he did last year in the finals.”
Maybe the biggest payoff of the regular-season maintenance plan has been how Wade has closed games in this postseason.
Wade is shooting 56 percent in fourth quarters during the playoffs, the best clip of his career and the best percentage of any guard with more than 30 shots in the final period of postseason games this season. San Antonio’s Danny Green is second on that list, shooting just under 49 percent.
Wade doesn’t like talking about his place in history.
But he knows what rarefied air he would be entering with a fourth title run.
“I think we’ve all put ourselves in great situations, and we’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in because it’s an amazing moment,” Wade said. “It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this.”
And now, when talking about his health, Wade has another one-word answer: “Better.”