SAN ANTONIO -- Just under 48 hours after one of the worst playoff games of his career, Dwyane Wade was clear: Any problems he was having had nothing to do with his knees.
"I'm fine," Wade said. "Way better than I've been in a long time. Last year I had one leg and did all right. So I'm totally fine. I didn't play well in Game 4. Has nothing to do with my health at all."
You want to believe Wade. You really do. For 11 years Wade has been one of the NBA's fiercest competitors -- a dynamic talent. He has been explosive, powerful, willing and able to play through contact. Three-point shooting has never been his bag (career best: 31.7 percent in 2008-2009), but he made up for it with an unstoppable step back jump shot and throwback mid-range game.
Yet lately, Wade has looked like a shell of his former self. The signs are everywhere. There is the lackluster defense and sluggish first step. There is the poor perimeter shooting and, worse, the unwillingness to launch from anywhere beyond 15 feet. Go back and look at how San Antonio has defended Wade in the NBA Finals. Rajon Rondo's jumper gets more respect.
The talents that made Wade a superstar have not been there this series, and as Miami faces elimination in Game 5 against San Antonio on Sunday, it's fair to wonder whether they will ever be there in the same way again.
"Nobody's going to make any excuses at this time," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "[Dwyane] wouldn't want me to make one for him. I don't think anybody that's playing minutes at this time of year is feeling 100 percent and feeling spry like they're 16-years old. But that's part of competition, how you manage everything, your body, your mind, manage frustration, manage elation, manage everything in between, and through all that trying to figure out how to get the job done. And so that's been our focus. I know that's Dwayne's focus as well."
Focus can only get you so far. No one doubts Wade's drive. He's got more championships (three) than anyone on the Heat roster not named Udonis Haslem and one more will advance him even further up the NBA's all-time two-guard pound-for-pound list. But through four games, Wade has been a liability. Overall his offensive numbers have been decent, but his best game--22 points on 8-12 shooting in Game 3--came in a game the Heat were blown out of in the first quarter. Defensively, Wade has been worse. It hasn't mattered who Miami has matched Wade up with. When it's Boris Diaw, Wade is overwhelmed in the post and (gulp) beaten off the dribble on the perimeter. When it's Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker, Wade's close outs have been so slow you would think he was running through mud to get to them. By now this stat is everywhere: The Spurs are outscoring the Heat by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor.
"There is nothing wrong," Wade said. "I got quality shots. I missed them. For whatever reason. They played good defense on some, (and) some I missed, but that's the nature of the game."
Spoelstra gave the Heat the day off on Friday, encouraging them to push basketball from their minds. Wade didn't. He went over to American Airlines Arena and, said Wade, "just smelled the gym a little bit."
"It was just to touch, to feel the ball, and wonder why I missed so many floaters," Wade said. "I'm high percentage around the basket, so I don't like missing those shots. It was just to go in there a little bit and have your moments to yourself. I do it often, especially when I don't make the shots I want to make or do the things I want to do."
The stakes are high for Wade, and not just in this series. Wade has pushed back the narrative that the future of the Big Three in Miami is tied to him-- that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and, perhaps, Carmelo Anthony will only consider the Heat if Wade can show he is still capable of playing at a championship level. But it will be a factor. Wade has been in a similar situation before, down 2-0 and 13 points to the Mavericks in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the 2006 Finals. It was Wade who summoned the strength to put Miami on his back and carry it to a championship. Eight years later Wade is no longer counted on to shoulder the load for the Heat, but he will have to be much better for Miami to come back again.