Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 23, LeBron James is 27 and Dwyane Wade is 30. If choosing between the pairs of Oklahoma City and Miami to start a franchise, you’d likely go the route of longevity and pick the Thunder’s fresh-faced duo. But to win a game today? The prevailing thought, by most at least, was that the overwhelming blend of talent and experience presented by James and Wade made them basketball’s best current tandem. And they’ve played like it for the majority of their two year run together, despite nagging injuries and extra miles added to each everyday.
We saw it as recently as two weeks ago, the two of them combining for an onslaught unlike any the game had ever seen in a game 4 must-win against Indianapolis, then again in games 5 and 6. Wade, in particular, put on one of the most spectacular performances of his shining career in closing out the Pacers, slicing and dicing his way to 41 points on a sizzling 17-25 from the field.
We all assumed Wade’s apathetic and mostly ineffective play to begin the Indiana series was over while watching that three game stretch of brilliance, left behind after an extra day of rest, a procedure draining fluid from his knee, and a sense that James – no matter how dominant – couldn’t do it alone. Then the Eastern Conference Finals came, and Wade reverted to his puzzling play of several games earlier: taking contested jumpers, failing to beat his defender off the dribble, opting to jog back for transition defense, and looking more disengaged than ever.
For those picking Miami to prevail over the Thunder (like our Vijay Shravah), they’re no doubt assuming that Wade’s struggles against Boston were due to the Celtics’ smothering, historic defense as opposed to more individual wounds like self-doubt, nagging injury, or just nine years of NBA basketball finally catching up to his body. After last night’s 105-94 Oklahoma City win, though, Wade’s problems seem more related to the latter than the former. And if that’s the case, Erik Spoelstra and company might be helpless to remedy them, as there’s almost no fix for Father Time.
Dwyane Wade is 30 and he’s starting to play like it. Against any other opponent it might not matter much for Miami, James’ continued greatness, the Heat’s swarming team defense, and a Wade that could still be counted on for 20 points a night enough to overcome most teams. But not the Thunder, with their youth and energy and infectious brand of team-first basketball just too much for a team as flawed as Miami, with Wade’s game slowing down at the accelerated rate the clock on his time as one of the league’s best is ticking away.
Miami needs more from everyone than they got in game 1 to beat the Thunder. More from James, more from Chris Bosh, and more consistency from ancillary parts like Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller. But no player’s improvement from yesterday to tomorrow will be more influential to the outcome of game 2 than Wade’s. Playing as he did to close out the Pacers in round two, he can be every bit as powerful a presence as James, Durant, and Westbrook.
The Wade we saw last night looked incapable of the necessary turnaround his game must take for Miami to win this series, but we’ve seen him make such drastic transposition already this postseason. And if not for that, you’d expect the Heat’s season and Wade’s reign as a top five player to be over before the NBA Finals even started. We did see it and it did happen, though, so don’t be so naive as to think either team is preparing for game 2 as if Wade is no longer Wade, Miami running every offensive set through James and OKC devoting their full defensive attention to stopping it.
But Wade is 30, Durant and Westbrook are 23, and James Harden and Serge Ibaka are 22. It will be harder for the player entering his career’s twilight to perform like his younger self against this particular group of kids, a quartet that plays with knack and composure beyond its years but the liveliness and fire of its real median age. And if that holds true and Wade fails to sip the elixir of youth he did two rounds ago under similar duress, the Heat won’t have enough to beat them.