MIAMI -- Chris Bosh knocked down a pass by Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade finished a dunk at the other end of the floor. The NBA Finals were 19 seconds old and Wade was airborne. It was a worrisome sign for the Spurs to see Wade hanging above the floor. It figures to be the key to everything.
"I think he looked great," said Danny Green, the Spurs shooting guard who was responsible for guarding Wade. "The first half he was running all over the place, getting dunks and layups. It seemed as if he was fine."
The argument can be made that Miami lost Game 1 because Wade did not finish as fine as he started. In the first half he was 5-of-8 for 13 points, leading all scorers as Miami controlled the run of play. Then Wade gave Miami just four points in the second half, and he was 0-for-2 in the fourth quarter when the Spurs were pulling away with a 92-88 win.
Wade is an A-list star in a league filled with blame. Losses happen when players such as him fail to hold up their end. But this is not about blame. These Finals are about Wade trying to do what he has done in the past. Throughout these playoffs he hasn't been the same player he used to be. He is a career 24.7-points scorer who has been averaging 14.3 points this postseason. He has a bruised right knee that prevents him from creating his own shot and exploding into space. He tries every night, and he never can tell whether his knee is going to allow him to succeed.
"It's only once you get out on the court and you figure it out," he was saying Friday before Miami practiced in anticipation of Sunday's Game 2. "A couple of nights I got out before the game, I thought, Oh yeah, this is my night. I got out there and it was, Oh no, it's not. It's one of those things, it's from quarter to quarter.
"But that's nothing. You're on the basketball court, you have to do whatever you have to do. You have to make some kind of positive impact while you're on the basketball floor. If you can't make a positive impact, then you need to sit down.''
He doesn't want to sit. The Heat can't afford to leave him on the bench. If Wade were at full health then his team might be favored prohibitively. If they had full use of the player who drove them to the championship in 2006 playing alongside LeBron James, who drove them to the title last year, then the floor would open for Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem and all of their other teammates. It was the collaboration of so much explosive talent that inspired James and Wade to brag preemptively of how easy the games were going to be the day after they committed to play together in Miami.
It hasn't been easy. Their first year together was hell. Last year Wade was dealing with injuries as Miami overcame deficits in its last three series. This year the injury to Wade has been more diminishing than ever. He finds himself being held to a standard that is -- for the moment, at least -- beyond his reach, and every player can relate to his frustration and anxiety.
"You're trying to survive," said Wade's teammate Shane Battier. "Every year there's a young guy coming to take your job, so you've got to do what it takes to keep your job. And so from that standpoint it's very Darwinian. Through the process you develop a game, but it's a byproduct of trying to stay relevant, to stay in play."
Battier was talking about how he has been able to extend his career as an NBA role player for a dozen years. But the dynamic is universal. Much as he has worked to stay relevant at his own level, and to deal with a reduced role lately for Miami in the playoffs, so has Wade been under pressure to stay relevant at the top of the NBA. Wade is naturally gifted, of course, but there have always been other gifted players who have tried and failed to take his place. He is trying to hold them off now for one more round, even though he currently lacks the weapons that enabled him to look down on all comers.
"It's not an 'if' game. It's a 'when' game," said Battier, speaking on behalf of himself and all NBA players everywhere. "It's when they tell you that you're no longer good enough to start. You're no longer good enough to play minutes. You're no longer good enough to be in this league. It's the ultimate fight for relevancy, and everyone handles it differently.
"That's life, though. You talk about a retiring CEO who's used to being big bossman -- used to calling the shots, chairman of the board -- and when they retire, the struggle for relevancy that person has is hard. You talk about mothers who are career women, and they retire from their careers to become full-time moms: They struggle with that fight for relevancy in their eyes, especially if they're used to being movers and shakers. Life is a battle of fighting for relevancy. It's an amazing, human thing to watch."
On the one hand it has been amazing to see Tim Duncan renew himself at 37. The Spurs star earned First Team All-NBA this season for the first time since 2006-07, which was also the last time he played in (and won) the NBA Finals. Duncan has a bad knee of his own. He can't fully extend his leg. He has had to lose weight and reinvent himself and now, six years since the peak of his career, he is relevant again by his old standards.
"Some guys fight like hell to stay relevant," said Battier. "Everybody's different, and everybody accepts that challenge differently. Some succeed, some don't. Some go gracefully. Some go down kicking and screaming."
Wade is not going to be graceful. He is the type to lose his temper in frustration, to throw a needless elbow at the head of Lance Stephenson or to break Kobe Bryant's nose in an All-Star Game. Even when he generated 21 points and nine rebounds in the Game 7 win against Indiana, he never looked as intimidating as he had in previous years. In 16 playoff games this year, he has scored 20 points or more just twice.
It will be easy to blame him if the Heat lose this series. But they may not lose. If they win it will be because Wade's kicking and screaming enabled him to give his team just enough.
"Playoffs ain't fun, man," said Wade. "I'm sorry to bust anyone on the outside's bubble. As a player in the playoffs, you have no joy until it's over and you won. If you don't win, you have no joy for a while. So for us it's the grind every day as a team of trying to win the series, trying to win four games in the series."
It was amazing in 2006 when Wade burst through the Mavericks to sweep the last four games, averaging 34.7 points in his first NBA Finals. Another kind of drama is playing itself out seven years later, and it is more noble. Wade may fail to live up to his own standards, and yet he may be able to squeeze out another championship. For him, relevancy has never been so agonizing.