On Thursday afternoon, I found myself wondering if Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra would look to curb Dwyane Wade's minutes in Game 4 after three straight games where the All-Star shooting guard came out hot, petered out after halftime and played often lackadaisical defense that helped contribute to the San Antonio Spurs' offense finding rhythm, wide-open 3-pointers and two wins in three tries. On Thursday evening, Spoelstra rode with Wade even longer — 39 minutes, 55 seconds, after not cracking 36 minutes since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals — and the All-NBA Third Teamer responded with his best game in a loooooooong time.
Wade's brilliant 32-point, six-rebound, six-steal, four-assist performance helped key a 109-93 Heat win that tied the NBA Finals at two games apiece, quieted all us skeptics (however briefly) and might have eliminated the argument that Wade can't be Wade with his right knee jacked up. As you might expect from a monster performance in a huge, high-leverage moment, Wade did some really cool stuff in Game 4. Here's the five I thought were the coolest — feel free to weigh in with yours in the comments.
1. Jumping into the passing lane to swipe Danny Green's pass, avoiding Manu Ginobili, going up-and-over Gary Neal and finishing with a dunk.
The anticipation of the never-should've-been-thrown cross-court feed, the stop-on-a-dime inside-out dribble to move around Ginobili in the open floor, the burst to give himself a one-on-one with Neal in the frontcourt, the footwork to outmaneuver a backpedaling Neal and the ball skills to maintain control and finish with authority on the break to give your team a nine-point lead in the fourth-quarter of a must-win game ... yes, all that is very, very cool stuff.
Let's see that finish and mean-mug in slow motion, thanks to the NBA's Phantom camera:
I believe the word that best describes what happened to Neal there is, "Yoink." Wade had some other words for it after the game.
"I knew I was on when I took it over the guy's head and dunked it on the break," he said. "That was a little vintage right there."
Three things about that:
• He didn't even know which Spurs player was defending him on the play, so I guess Neal didn't become a household name in Game 3;
• This means Wade didn't know he was "on" until four minutes into the fourth quarter, at which point he had 28 points on 60 percent shooting, six rebounds, five steals, three assists, one block and no turnovers, which you'd think might have tipped him off vis-a-vis being "on" a little earlier;
• He did the same thing last week to Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson:
So maybe it's, like, instant vintage. Word to Raphael Saadiq.
2. Meeting Tiago Splitter at the rim to send back his second-quarter layup attempt.
At least it wasn't the most severe block Tiago's suffered at the rim in the series. And amazingly, it wasn't even really the most embarrassing block on Splitter of the night — getting packed by Shane Battier has to hurt even worse than getting rejected by the best shot-blocking guard of all time, even if said best shot-blocking guard of all time scarcely seemed able to get up off the floor in Games 1 through 3. Boy, it was nice to see that lift back, though, huh?
3. Crossing up Green to get to the paint for a hang-and-finish over Tim Duncan.
I dig the three fundamentally cool elements of this — the slightly longer linger on the cross to get Green on the wrong side of Chris Bosh, the strong finish despite the in-air collision with Duncan and the hang time to recalibrate following contact and put an accurate shot on the glass. Chaining those things together in the time it takes most of us to decide to put one foot in front of the other is pretty great.
But I also think it's cool that, after a series that's seen the Spurs repeatedly go under pick-and-rolls with Wade as the ball-handler and Wade repeatedly pound the ball rather than making a quick decision or let that quick decision be a too-soon long jumper, Wade went early in the possession while San Antonio was reacting to the transition screen, saw an opening against the big man, went right at it and was rewarded for his aggression. It's indicative of the change in approach that marked much of Miami's Game 4 win, with Wade one of its principal practitioners.
4. Attacking Duncan on a perimeter switch, weaving his way to the basket and finishing a tough reverse layup for an and-one.
Again, the acrobatic reverse using the rim to avoid the shot-blocker is great. But so's not settling for the jumper, resetting the possession and, after receiving the ball back from Mike Miller, going right at Duncan to force him to adjust and make decisions. Cool aesthetically and cool strategically.
5. TIE: Making a great baseline cut behind Ginobili for a settle-things-down early layup and stopping himself from helping off Kawhi Leonard in the left corner, then boxing out Splitter.
OK, so these aren't necessarily great showcases of the scoring touch and athleticism that Wade showed off on Thursday, but they're still pretty cool in a "basketball nerd" sense.
Throughout this series, as I wrote earlier Thursday, the Spurs tasked with checking Wade have been sagging off him in a major way, refusing to believe that someone who shot 31.5 percent outside the restricted area through the first three rounds would routinely beat them with jumpers. Often, he's viewed this sign of disrespect as an invitation to make San Antonio pay by doing exactly what they want him to do — take uncontested jumpers that he wasn't making (just 5 for 19 from midrange through the first three games) — rather than make more concerted efforts to find paths to the basket.
That's exactly what he did here out of a Heat timeout, using Ginobili's poor situational awareness and ball-watching to cut unmolested from the right corner along the baseline to the hoop. Once there, James found him with a bullet pass for a layup over the contest of Duncan, who was a step late in reacting after having had to contend with Bosh's hard roll to the rim coming off a high screen with Norris Cole.
The nice draw-up out of the timeout accomplished two things. In the micro sense, it stopped an 8-2 San Antonio run that briefly made Game 4 seem like merely an extension of the second half of Game 3. In the macro sense, after a couple of early Wade jumpers (one make, one miss), it signaled an understanding by Spoelstra and Wade that the best way to get Wade going would be to use the space the Spurs afforded to make smart decisions and build up a head of steam toward the rim rather than hang back for look-better-than-they-really-are shots. Wade's next three shots came within eight feet of the basket, and he continued to press the paint all night long.
Again, this play wasn't particularly sexy, but it was noteworthy in that it represented two specific defensive improvements in areas in which Wade's been lacking this series — his tendency to offer unnecessary help that leaves San Antonio shooters wide open in the corner and his inattentive work on the defensive glass that's allowed Spurs wings (mostly Leonard) and bigs (mostly Duncan, although Splitter grabbed four offensive boards in Game 3) to cruise in for put-backs and possession-extenders.
As Leonard moves along the baseline from right corner to left, Wade keeps his left foot in the paint and takes a step forward because he sees Ginobili feeding Splitter out of a Heat trap of a Spurs high screen-and-roll. But Cole's already stepping up to meet Splitter and Bosh is already recovering to get to him, meaning Wade's becoming the third man in an unnecessary triple-team that leaves one of San Antonio's better marksmen (albeit one who's 0 for 5 from the corners in the Finals) wide open.
Thankfully, where Wade might have taken another step toward the ball to try to trap Splitter into a turnover earlier in the series, he recognizes it and takes a step back toward Leonard as Splitter raises up with apparent interest in dumping the ball to the corner. Credit Cole, too, for stepping in quickly with his arms up to make Splitter hesitate, and Bosh to recovering to Splitter's right hand, making the Brazilian go left to put the ball on the floor, which gave Wade an extra split-second to get back.
With the initial action blown up by good Heat rotations, Splitter now dribbles into a handoff for Leonard, which Wade fights around with Bosh stepping up to take the ball-handler. As Leonard pulls up for a contested paint jumper, Wade doesn't watch the shot, as he's done often in the series, but rather quickly gets his hip into Splitter, driving him two steps toward the baseline and clearing a path for James to swoop in for the rebound to end the possession.
Miami won because of the big stuff — James and Wade knocking down shots, Bosh being huge on the defensive end, the Big Three finally scoring together at the same time — but the smaller stuff matters, too, and Wade specifically addressing things he's been bad at helped make Miami a much tougher out on Thursday.