Wade's health buoys defending champion Heat against Pacers

Saturday May 24th, 2014

The Heat's so-called maintenance program for Dwyane Wade has paid dividends in the postseason.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images via NBA

MIAMI -- For a 15-second stretch, the state of Indiana held its collective breaths on Tuesday night. There, on the Banker's Life Fieldhouse floor, Paul George lay prone, head buried inside his elbow, his brain rattled from a knee-on-skull collision with Dwyane Wade. It was a frightening moment for a fan base that has pinned many of its hopes on George, a two-time All-Star, the Pacers leading scorer, to lead Indiana past Miami and into the team's first NBA Finals since 2000. To make matters worse, hours later George admitted to blacking out and was subsequently diagnosed with a concussion

Hearts were beating a little faster down on the Miami sideline, too. Next to George was a grimacing Wade clutching his left knee, rocking back and forth as if to ease the pain away. For a player with so many knee problems -- problems that date back to his college days, problems that force him to be on a strict maintenance program this year that cost him more than a dozen games during the regular season -- it was in some ways an equally terrifying moment.

Wade got up though, and did what he has done for most of the playoffs: Helped Miami finish off a quality opponent. Wade scored 23 points on 62.5 percent shooting in Game 2, his second straight game shooting above 60 percent and his fifth straight shooting better than 50 percent. In 11 games this postseason, Wade is averaging 19.2 points (on 53.1 percent shooting), 4.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 34.6 minutes per game. Wade says he is playing more instinctively and teammate Shane Battier explains Wade has a burst that is better than its been all season.

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"When he's healthy, you can tell," Battier said. "Things that he wasn't able to do when he was trying to get to a good place, he's doing right now. His step-back jumper is a lot sharper. His cuts, his change of direction, he explodes like only about four or five guys in this league can do. When he's healthy, it's noticeable."

Getting to this point was a masterful job by Wade, who after undergoing the non-invasive OssaTron shockwave treatment to heal deep bone bruises in the offseason worked tirelessly to get here. Miami's coaching staff put together a specific program for Wade before the season and didn't deviate from it an inch. Coach Erik Spoelstra says Wade was day-to-day every day. He wouldn't playing in many back-to-backs. And if he wasn't passing daily tests (tests that included corrective exercises, strength and conditioning and weight work) he would be held out of the lineup.

"I know all this makes us look much smarter than we are," Spoelstra said. "The plan was that it would be a process. He wasn't ready to play 15 or 16 games in a month. But we wanted him to participate in training camp, be part of preseason and whatever games he would be available for we would adjust to that. From there, it would always be about getting stronger and healthier as the season goes on."

Wade bristles at the suggestion that the 28 games he missed this season -- which included a nine-game stretch he sat out toward the end of the season with a hamstring injury -- have somehow preserved him for the playoffs. No doubt, for a player of Wade's caliber, who has prided himself on his toughness during a decorated 11-year career, the perception that he was being treated like basketball's Humpty Dumpty had to sting. The 19.0 points Wade averaged during the regular season were the fewest since his rookie year and his 32.9 minutes were a career low. Wade isn't one to vent publicly, but his teammates knew the questions about his health bothered him.

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"There were so many attacks on him, from people questioning his toughness to people questioning his commitment," Battier said. "I don't care who you are, when you keep hearing people saying you are done playing at a high level, it pisses you off."

For Wade, this type of schedule (and whatever bogus criticisms that come with it) could be something he has to get used to. His longtime trainer, Tim Grover, told Bleacher Report in March that in addition to the bone bruises he believes Wade has chondromalacia patella, or runner's knee, which is an inflammation of the cartilage behind the kneecap. Depending on how Wade intends to treat his knees this offseason -- which could still be about a month away -- a reduced regular season workload could become something he has to accept.

Another championship will undoubtedly make accepting it a lot easier. Wade didn't like it and Spoelstra refused to take any credit for it, but the maintenance plan has worked. Wade looks sharp, fresh and with no back-to-backs in the playoffs and a player-friendly three days off between Game 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, its likely he will stay that way. Indiana's Lance Stephenson, Wade's new nemesis, said recently that part of his job during this series was to run Wade ragged, to make his knee "flare up" and knock him out of the game. The way Wade looks, don't count on it.

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