November 9, 2018

Under the bright spotlight and intense magnifying glass of the NBA Playoffs, it’s hard to hide anything. Often, the team that advances is usually the one who can find more answers than questions—answers to a certain matchup, tactic, or even a player’s own self-questioning.

In the moments between a near epic Game 1 collapse, and some strong overtime resolve to take a road playoff victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Miami Heat gathered around its group of veterans for knowledge and composure.

Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem led the huddle, according to Dwyane Wade, who carried the team on the court; scoring seven of his 24 points after Kyle Lowry hit a near half court heave at the end of regulation to tie the game—including a steal and a dunk to seal the game after the Raptors pulled within three with 10 seconds remaining.

“We’re a tough team. We’re a tough group of guys,” Luol Deng said after the game. “We’ve seen a lot of different situations and we just stuck with it.”

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With Deng, Wade, Joe Johnson, and Goran Dragic, Miami’s main playoff rotation is full of experienced NBA veterans who’ve been through the highs and lows of what the playoffs have to offer. Of course, they’re still relatively new at facing such big moments together; and doing so while also relying on inexperienced players like Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson, and Justise Winslow.

But with a Game 7 already under their belts against the Charlotte Hornets, the Heat are getting a crash course in playoff battles.

After a relatively by-the-books first round, with only one upset (the Portland Trail Blazers over the injury-riddled Los Angeles Clippers), the beginning of the second—with the chaotic Game 2 ending between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, and Golden State’s comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers—has reminded that anything is possible.

Thirteen years into his NBA career, Wade has seen it all; from personal glory (his first championship over the Dallas Mavericks) to failures (Dirk Nowitzki’s redemption), and even miracles (Ray Allen’s shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals).

So when Wade saw Lowry’s last second shot lined up perfectly with the rim from the moment of release, he knew what was happening, and more importantly, what would have to be done next.

“I’m looking at the ball, and I’m like, ‘no way this is not about to happen.’ It looked like it was dead on,” Wade said. “When it goes in, you’re just crushed for a minute—I think I hit my knees—because you want to wrap up a game like that, in the playoffs, in regulation. The only thing you can do is get up, regroup, and know you got five more minutes to play.”

Dwyane Wade is no longer able to completely or consistently tap into his vast reservoir of talent. At 34-years-old, the lift and explosion no longer surge through his legs on a nightly basis. But that doesn’t mean there’s no life left in them.

Every step, shift in direction, and jump have been recorded in his fast twitch muscle fibers. The advantages of youth no longer flow through his body, but years of great moments are ingrained in his muscle memory, providing an intuitive, almost automatic response to every situation.

After Johnson and Deng began overtime with tough buckets for a little bit of a cushion, Wade gave a hard jab to his right to run the defender into the screen, turning the pick down and going left for the pull-up fadeaway from the elbow he’s hit countless times in his career: 

Wade’s prime athleticism elevated every aspect of his game to amazing heights, but his talent primarily resides in his craft and ability to change directions—attributes that remain even as his explosiveness have waned.

His ability to set opponents up, both within a possession and throughout the game, make him a dangerous threat even this late in his career.

In the fourth quarter, Wade showed his mastery of the pick and roll, snaking the screen—the act of cutting across the screener’s path—to get to that same left elbow, and using a the threat of it with a slight hesitation to blow by Jonas Valanciunas:

Later, in overtime, Wade caught Valanciunas in the same situation, using an in-and-out dribble to fake that previous action, freezing Jonas just enough to get to his floater.

And then, when Toronto threatened at the end of overtime with the ball and within three, it was Wade who stole the ball and raced downcourt for the dunk and foul.

https://youtu.be/CTiTHsLT3PM

“He willed a bunch of plays down the stretch on both ends,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We were running most of the offense through him. That’s the mental toughness he always shows in these moments: ‘forget what happened, we’re in a great spot, on the road, with a chance to win. Let’s get the job done.’ And that’s what great leaders do for your basketball team.”

Though this iteration of the Raptors are further along in the playoffs than they’ve ever been, they’re still seeking answers for how to maintain all of their regular season success under larger scrutiny.

DeMar DeRozan (22 points, 9-for-22 shooting) lacks the same elusiveness Wade possesses off the bounce, and has been locked down for most of the postseason. Kyle Lowry (seven points, 3-for-13 shooting), meanwhile, is in the midst of a terrible shooting slump that’s starting to tear into his confidence—rising off a screen to get into his shot, only to veer off into a forced pass at the last second.

From ESPN.com:

“I have [been in a slump like this], but not at this time, so that’s what’s frustrating,” Lowry said. “In the playoffs, all eyes are on you. It sucks to be playing this bad with all eyes on me. I know I’m better than this, so I have to pick this s— up.”

Whiteside has been a huge presence in the lane all playoffs, using his size to block or alter shots and deter drives, but he does have a tendency to hang back too far on the pick and rolls sometimes, giving up the sort of off-the-dribble three-pointers Lowry willingly took throughout the regular season. Shots he’s now turning down.

In the second half, Toronto finally began to challenge him at the rim a little, getting a crucial drive from DeRozan: 

And some life from Cory Joseph:

A slew of turnovers in the final 30 seconds—Deng running the baseline on an inbounds pass (which is a travel unless done after a made basket), Josh Richardson throwing a loose rebound out of bounds trying to save the ball, and another poor inbounds pass from Deng (leading to a Richardson foul diving for the loose ball)—gave the Raptors an opportunity for Lowry’s prayer. But it was Miami who had all the responses this game.

“From that point on, I was extremely proud of the group,” Spoelstra said. “In the huddle, to get knocked down on the canvas like that, the air punctured out of your body, to show the mental resolve to come back and take control of the overtime, that’s a great mental toughness that I think we showed from there.

“We have to go through all of this together. we have a lot of new players and all of these moments we’re really growing from. And it really happens when you get tested and challenged and tons of adversity, but it was good to see us overcome it.”

Wade raised his game in the spotlight, while afterwards, in an empty gym, Lowry got a few shots off looking for a few answers of his own.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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