The stats don’t lie — the third game of the NBA Finals, pitched in the middle of a 2-3-2 home/away format, is the most crucial song of the series. If the Finals truly are a one-sided affair, Game 3 can serve as evidence that the team with home-court advantage is championship-worthy enough to win on the road. If things are more balanced, a Game 3 win from the home team can serve as notice that this series may never leave their turf, never to return to the final “2” in the 2-3-2 schedule.
The Miami Heat know this. They’re the only NBA team, since the 2-3-2 format began in 1985, to grab a 2-1 lead after winning a Game 3 and still lose the series. The Heat eked out an 88-86 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 of the 2011 NBA Finals before losing the next three contests and that year’s title.
The problem with that knowledge, as the Heat square up for another tie-breaking Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, is that so much has changed for the Heat since 2011. For better — LeBron James’ ascension and Mike Bibby’s retirement come to mind — or worse. Namely, the declining fortunes of Dwyane Wade.
Wade was an All-Star this season and an All-NBA-level guard throughout most of the year. He’s fallen off in the postseason, though, averaging just 14.1 points on 44 percent shooting with 9.6 combined rebounds/assists, after a regular season that saw him contribute 21.2 points and 10.1 combined boards/dishes. Wade can’t completely blame the improved competition, as the Heat’s first two opponents (the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls) were either sub-par or injured to a ridiculous degree. Wade can’t blame fatigue, either, as Game 3 will be just his 23rd contest since March 24.
Wade was the leader in 2011’s Game 3 win. With James confused as to how to score against Dallas’ modified zone defense (missing eight of 14 shots, finishing with 14 points) and former starters Bibby and Joel Anthony combining to shoot 2 for 9, Wade went off for 29 points on 12 of 21 shooting. He added 11 rebounds and three assists, and didn’t turn the ball over despite playing 38 minutes. It was the sort of franchise player-level performance Miami needed to survive, as it sorted out milking the James/Wade/Chris Bosh triumvirate in its 100th game of the 2010-11 season.
Miami will field a franchise player in James on Tuesday night, one fully comfortable in his own skin and able to dominate the game in a number of ways on both ends of the court. They’ll badly need Wade against a championship-level foe in San Antonio, though, and Dwyane just hasn’t been consistently brilliant since the Heat started matching each win with a loss eight playoff games ago. During that win one/lose one streak Wade has shot just 41.5 percent while getting to the free throw line just 36 times in eight games. Thirty-six free throw attempts used to be a long weekend for Dwyane Wade. Now it’s a playoff series and a half.
Wade, you may recall, challenged James to raise his level of intensity and production as 2011’s Game 3 dawned, but a similar tongue-lashing sent Dwyane’s way from LeBron some two years later likely won’t serve a beneficial purpose. Wade may not be right until this season ends, and another year of rest and rehab (he underwent surgery on his knees during the 2012 break in action last summer) sets in. Heck, at age 31 (and this is a tough 31, considering all the lengthy postseason trips that Wade’s brilliance has inspired and the international basketball bouts), he may never be right again.
Wade needs no such speech from James before Game 3. He understands the gravity of the situation, and he respects his opponents from San Antonio. In full or poor health, Wade brings a typically savvy game to the table, and the only time he’s not going all out is when he pauses to complain to referees about the hit he just took. The focus, the knowledge, and the smarts will all be there.
Will the legs? Because, not sure if you’ve heard, Game 3 is pretty darn important.