Is Dwyane Wade Ready to Dominate?

After a restful season, can D-Wade help carry the Heat to another NBA Championship?

After the craziest first round in NBA history, we’re unexpectedly right where we expected things to be, especially in the Eastern Conference. The Heat and Pacers are headed to Miami for Memorial Day weekend, all tied up in a series that certainly has the potential to go the distance, despite Indiana’s struggles down the stretch and early in the playoffs. Everyone has been waiting on this series, expecting it to be a war, since Miami knocked off Indiana in Game 7 a year ago.

One thing the basketball world probably didn’t expect was the resurgence of Dwyane Wade. The superstar has been battling knee issues for several seasons now, and at certain points has appeared to be washed up. Especially last year, his athleticism and explosiveness sapped.

The thought of that brings a little tear to any NBA fan’s eye. But after a regular season on what the Heat have described as a “maintenance plan” - go read Ethan Skolnick’s enlightening piece with legendary trainer Tim Grover if you don’t know what I’m talking about - Wade appears to be back in full force this postseason.

D-Wade is putting up 19.2 points per game this postseason, and has been doing it efficiently, shooting 53.1 percent from the field with a true shooting percentage of 57.8 in 34.6 minutes per game. He’s gotten stronger as the postseason has worn on, too, with his scoring average rising in each series. Against the Pacers, Wade has been unstoppable, going for 25 a game on 64.7 percent shooting. He’s carrying the offense early in games while still having the strength to close things out like he did in Game 2, when he was 5 for 5 from the field in the final quarter of a tight Heat win. He even threw down two emphatic dunks in that fourth quarter. That’s as encouraging as anything, considering that it seems like nearly all of Wade’s dunks this season have come in transition and have had the force of a mother setting a newborn down in its crib.

In the regular season, Wade was surprisingly at his best on just a day’s rest. Half of his games played - 27 of 54 - came with just a day off in between. He averaged better than 20 points in those contests, with an offensive rating of 113. Wade’s been just as deadly with a day between games in postseason, with his scoring average dropping by a mere point from the regular season and his efficiency numbers staying static. Good thing, since after Saturday’s game, being played with three days rest - Wade is averaging 25 points with a 68.2 true shooting percentage in the playoffs with that much time off - the remainder of this series will be played with a day between games.

The Downside

While D-Wade has bounced back to superhero form, there are some issues with his rest program. Skolnick and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, another of the most plugged in Heat sources, have both talked about some bristling in the Heat locker room over Wade sitting out so many games, often times with little to no warning before tipoff. While they had their worst regular season of the Big Three era, the Heat still managed just fine in the weak Eastern Conference. Wade’s absences allowed Chris Bosh to flourish offensively and become a legitimate threat from deep, but also taxed an aging corps of bench players.

It also weakened the biggest advantage the Heat have over every opponent: the one-two punch of LeBron James and Wade. Spending the least time on court together as they have in any of their four years together, their on-court chemistry suffered along with their results.

Wade/LebronGPMPGOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg

They haven’t really improved as a duo in the playoffs, with their offensive rating climbing just slightly to 109.8 and the defensive rating rising to 107.9 in the 304 minutes they’ve shared together in the Heat’s first 11 postseason games. But you can see their synergy coming back in moments like the fourth quarter of Game 2, when Wade and James combined to score or assist on all 25 of Miami’s points.

Chemistry concerns aside - and really, it doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of reason to be concerned about that - Wade’s absence all season may have had an unintended negative consequence. With his partner in basketball crime MIA, LeBron had to shoulder just as heavy of a load as ever for Miami. His minutes took the smallest of dips this season, while his usage rate still sat over 31 for a team that doesn’t have any real creators outside of Bron and Wade. LeBron was as brilliant as ever offensively, posting the second-highest offensive win shares total (12.3) of his time in Miami, while also going for the third-highest offensive rating of his career (121).

But LeBron has now played 372 NBA games, at an average of 38.9 minutes per, over the past four seasons. Add in his international play and another 12 potential games this postseason, and James will have played nearly the equivalent of five seasons’ worth of ball over his four years in Miami. Sure, LeBron might be a cyborg, but so is Tim Duncan. For some perspective, by Timmy’s 11th season he was down to playing a little over 33 minutes per game, getting regular rest from Gregg Popovich.

While James has no lingering health issues like Wade, there should still be concern over him breaking down. Plenty of people said the Heat were coasting this year, and many of them pointed to Bron’s defensive effort as the main piece of evidence in their case. In fact, LeBron did post the worst defensive rating of his career at 105, which has held steady in the playoffs. Did anyone think that instead of not trying, LeBron is straight up exhausted? All signs point to that, and not having Wade to help carry the team all season has to be a factor.

Just look at this Pacers series. In both games, Wade has opened up on fire, while James hasn’t gotten himself engaged until later in the game. On the defensive end, you see James getting caught ball-watching while Lance Stephenson streaks on a cut behind him for an open dunk. And when Lance caught fire in the third quarter, it was Norris Cole on him in the fourth. In the past, James would always be the man to take on the responsibility of shutting down whoever it was torching the Heat. Instead, there he was in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of Miami’s season, losing track of C.J. Watson. These days, it seems he needs to conserve what’s left of his energy for the offensive end.

Outside of Bosh finding his game, Wade’s ability to carry the Heat when they need it is going to be the biggest factor in whether or not they can win their third straight championship. So far, all signs point to him being capable of that. But with creaky knees, it’s impossible to know when a flare up could sit Wade down at the most inopportune time. Miami needs to hope they hold up for another month.