Dwyane Wade back in the playoffs, savoring the opportunity

MIAMI (AP) Numbers do not tell the whole story when it comes to Dwyane Wade this season.

The statistics from this Miami Heat season scream that he's in serious decline. He's never shot worse, either from the field or from 3-point range. His scoring and assist averages were both the second-lowest of his career. He managed a mere two double-doubles, the lowest total in that department since his rookie season.

But his leadership seems strong as ever.

In a season where Miami rebuilt its roster, lost Chris Bosh for the second straight season at the All-Star break to a blood clot and made a surprising midseason decision to radically change its pace of play, Wade's leadership kept proving vital. He's about to make his 11th postseason appearance in 13 years; the Heat host the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series.

''I know I've got a big responsibility as a leader of this team to help lead these guys,'' Wade said. ''It's in a different way than I've done with other teams. So for me, it's about meeting the challenge. Some games I'll be the go-to guy or the scorer, some games I'll give guys confidence. There's going to be a lot of different roles I play.''

He helped convince Joe Johnson to come to Miami in February instead of accepting an offer from Cleveland, a move that has paid big dividends for the Heat. He's put in extra hours with Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, two rookies who already have key roles in Miami's rotation. He's passed up his own scoring chances in order to throw lobs to Hassan Whiteside, Miami's breakout center.

When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talks about Wade's footprint on this season, he points to a blowout loss at Toronto in January. Wade was urged not to even play because of shoulder pain, which was so bad that night that even putting on a shirt made him wince. Miami got dominated, dropped a fourth game in a row and fell to 23-21.

''That's the toughness of Dwyane Wade,'' Spoelstra said. ''Him playing that night sent a message about what it takes to be successful.''

Miami went 25-13 the rest of the way.

Part of the dip in the numbers is based on minutes, where Spoelstra kept Wade to an average of about 31 a night. And Wade still reached 25 points 17 times, the Heat going 12-5 in those games.

''I like how he's been able to change his game, not shooting as many 3's, still driving to the basket, still getting contact, still finishing, not only from mid-range but he still has his bounce on his jump shot,'' former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Jalen Rose said. ''I really like what I'm seeing from him.''

What Wade has done this year really started exactly 12 months ago, when the Heat sputtered in their first season without LeBron James, dealt with waves of injuries and illness - Bosh's midseason departure being the big blow - and missed the playoffs.

Wade decided he needed to change his body, slimming down more than he had in years.

''He was just knocking off pounds and getting his body right because he understood what he had to do,'' said Heat forward Dorell Wright, who was doing the same diet and workouts as Wade last summer. ''The way he approaches the game, the way he's taken care of his body, he's still a smart player, great player and a crafty player. He understands the game so much more now. He's just a leader, man. He leads by example and always has.''

And now he's back where he believes the Heat belong.

He's been to the NBA Finals five times, won three titles and knows not many are probably expecting big things from Miami in these playoffs. That doesn't mean Wade doesn't have high expectations.

''It does mean a lot to come back this year and put a team together that can do it,'' Wade said. ''I look at the teams ahead of us and I say we're just as good as them. I truly believe it. We have to believe it as a unit. I'm waiting to see if we believe it.''

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