Miami has been penciled in as the presumed NBA champion for months, but this late stage of the playoffs has provided a greater test for the Heat than anticipated. For that we can not only credit the Pacers, whose offense has proven to be startlingly resilient, but also Dwyane Wade. Miami's second star has been so undermined by injury that he's been rendered altogether meek -- a former marvel characterized only by what he can no longer do. In some brief moments, he's still Wade, slicing his way to the rim off the dribble, springing up for a rebound unexpectedly, or coasting the baseline for a reverse layup. Yet at other times, he's left grasping, or worse yet: surrendering opportunities in an acknowledgement that he isn't quite himself.
Wade may well resume his previous form following a summer of rest and treatment. Yet in the meantime, Wade's failure to measure up to his own shadow has proven to be altogether problematic for Miami. This is a team engineered with the the strengths of LeBron James in mind, but it's built to sustain on a dual engine. Every bit of responsibility that Wade can't handle further adds to the burden on James, and though LeBron seemed to carry that weight with ease in Game 5, Wade's underwhelming play could conceivably challenge the limits of the league's best player.
For the moment, the Heat can take some comfort in their 3-2 series advantage. But that momentary edge doesn't erase the fact that Wade has hit the 20-point mark just once in this year's playoffs, and has been particularly harmless as a scorer in Miami's last two games. Some struggles are to be expected given the quality of defense that serves as the Pacers' standard, but Wade's knee has now nagged at his play for more than two months. Wade admitted that the injury is worse than the one he played through last postseason, when he averaged 22.8 points, 4.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 7.2 free throw attempts per game. This playoffs, Wade is averaging just 13.9 points, 5.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 free throw attempts per game -- decent enough all-around numbers, to be sure, but lacking in the context of what's needed against the particular opponents. The Heat will need something more from Wade lest they resort to a complete reliance on James -- a reasonable strategy that could earn the necessary wins, but presents a far from preferable course for a team supposedly built on the strength of three independent stars.
According to NBAWowy, the Heat have eked out just 89.7 points per 100 possessions in this series when Wade plays without LeBron -- a regrettable mark for Miami in any context. In contrast, the Heat have scored at a rate of 133.8 points per 100 possessions in this series when James is on the floor without Wade, with the final stretch of the third quarter in Game 5 (in which Miami reeled off a 12-4 run to extend their lead) providing just one recent example. These numbers are a bit distorted due to the small sample sizes in play, but the statistical implications here are stark even with the asterisks.
And, as Zach Lowe noted in his piece for Grantland following Game 4, Wade's struggles to pose a consistent threat on offense have reached the point that the Pacers now assign their foul-troubled wings to guard him specifically. That very thought is irreconcilable with what we know of Wade as a basketball entity. While it may be understandable for Frank Vogel to shift Paul George off of James after racking up a few fouls, that Wade has devolved to provide some sense of safety in that scenario is fairly incredible. There may be no more apt evidence of Wade's current defects than that.
Luckily for Miami, Wade has been more helpful on the other end of the court -- if only because the Heat so often position him to help off of his man. Sam Young, in particular, is so innocuous on offense that Wade can drift away from him without consequence, and in Game 5 Lance Stephenson wasn't much better. That kind of defensive drifting works well for Wade, as he tends to gravitate toward the ball by nature. Though capable of more committed, lockdown defense, Wade's instincts pull him into passing lanes and double teams, and the Heat have looked to harness that tendency of late both as a means of helping against Indiana's post threats and keeping Wade off of Paul George and George Hill. Wade is capable of denying the ball initially or even playing a half-possession of solid defense, but he's having significant problems at present of maintaining the necessary defensive energy through full possessions. Because of that, he fails to recover defensively at times and surrenders offensive rebounds when he should be boxing out -- painful mistakes against a Pacer offense that's working hard until the shot clock buzzer.
These problems and Wade's injury likely won't soon disappear. They're pressing concerns in Miami's efforts to wrap up their domain of the Eastern Conference, much less claim the title assumed to be theirs. With Wade moving a step slow, Indiana will continue to wall him off from the basket while leaving him with difficult runners and jumpers -- a diet which translated to 8-for-23 shooting over the last two games. That alone wasn't enough to undermine James' heroics, and given both the tilt of this series and the Heat's greater defensive successes in Game 5, it likely won't prove fatal to Miami just yet. But it's the cumulative effects of the Heat's struggles that have put into question a title defense that once seemed certain.
At the moment, James is playing brilliantly in spite of Wade's struggles, dismal perimeter shooting from Ray Allen (30 percent from three in the ECF) and Shane Battier (13.3 percent) and a short showing from the also-injured Chris Bosh that's light on both points and rebounds. Shooters go cold, and against Indiana, tend to be smothered. Bosh's role as an outlet option is valuable, but his struggles on the glass are nothing new and he, too, is vulnerable to a stretch of poor shooting. Yet Wade is regarded differently if only because he is considered a world apart -- a star intended to be James' steady complement on a team that otherwise waxes and wanes. So far, Wade has been anything but a steady force. Wade may resurge in spite of his limitations, but even that won't mean that the ailment no longer exists. We've seen enough to know that all is not right with Wade, and though James may ultimately control whether his teammate's struggles tip the balance, there's no use denying that Wade's liabilities are very much in play when we talk about the Heat's title hopes.