MIAMI — Dwyane Wade is usually the Miami Heat’s best supporting actor. But on Oscar night, give him the award for best actor.
LeBron James, the guy who almost always gets top billing, didn’t look like himself in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena. But that’s OK because No. 3 was doubly good and sure looked like No. 6.
Wade scored 15 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter as the Heat stormed back from an eight-point deficit in the final five minutes Sunday night to win 109-105 for their 11th straight victory.
James has been grabbing all of the headlines for his amazing play during the winning streak and it was more of the same when he scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first half. But those people who insist James is not human were proven wrong down the stretch.
James, who finished with 28 points, had just three in the fourth quarter while not making a single field goal. James was 0 of 1 while looking tentative at times against his former team. His miss was, egads, an easy layup.
But Wade, 31, came to the rescue. Never mind that he was playing his fourth game in five nights, something that might have given him trouble early in the season when he was still rounding into form following July knee surgery.
Wade shot 7 of 10 in the quarter while totaling three rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. His driving dunk with 24.4 seconds left put the Heat (40-14) up 105-101 and they soon avoided what would have been an embarrassing loss to the lowly Cavaliers (18-38).
“It was a tough one, but we found a way,” Wade said. “I felt like in the first three quarters I couldn’t move but in the fourth quarter you just find it.”
It’s true Wade was a bit shaky in the first three quarters, shooting 4 of 12 for nine points. But his strong finish clearly showed his left knee problem is a thing of the past.
“I’m as good as I’m going to be,” said Wade, who early in the season said it wouldn’t be fair to judge him until after the Feb. 17 All-Star Game but last month said he was ahead of schedule. “I felt like I was in January. I thought I was really ahead of schedule because we talked about all summer that February would be the time kind of when I felt very well. But I felt very well in January and I think I showed it with my play, just being consistent.”
While Wade has said that James, with his 30-point and 60-percent shooting games, has been “off the planet” this month, Wade hasn’t been too shabby himself. During the 11-game streak, Wade has averaged 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists to raise his seasonal averages to 21.2, 4.9 and 4.7.
After Wade scored 33 points Saturday at Philadelphia, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra further came to his shooting guard’s defense. He chastised those who had criticized Wade’s play earlier in the season.
“The human, natural reaction for us is to roll our eyes at the beginning of the year or even just a handful of weeks ago when people were criticizing him,” Spoelstra said.
The most publicized ripping came from Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley, once his partner in cell-phone commercials. Barkley blasted Wade, saying he had lost his explosiveness.
“I deal with it,” Wade said of the criticism he heard. “We all deal with something here individually at times. So it was my turn to deal with something and that’s the biggest thing is, how do you respond? When you fall, how do you get back up? And I responded.”
Wade was the final member of Miami’s Big Three to hear intense criticism. James got plenty of it for not being able to win a title in his first Miami season of 2010-11. Chris Bosh has heard claims of being soft or being a third wheel.
James, bound for a fourth MVP trophy, doesn’t have too many discouraging words thrown his way these days. But there will be plenty of speculation until the summer of 2014, when he can opt out of his contract, about whether he might one day return to Cleveland.
James, who bolted the Cavaliers as a free agent in 2010, didn’t rule out that possibility last year. Denver Nuggets coach George Karl recently went so far as to tell FOX Sports Florida, “I think LeBron is at that stage where he’s challenging himself to motivate him to do something that’s maybe more difficult. I could see him maybe (returning to the Cavaliers). I see (Cleveland point guard Kyrie) Irving maybe being a reason for that.”
“That’s the first time I’ve heard it,” James said after Sunday’s game when asked about what Karl had said. “My only focus now is to win another championship. I can’t worry about speculation or rumors. What we’re doing on the floor right now is what it’s all about. We’re playing good ball right now. We’re trying to win a championship. I can’t worry about what people say.”
James didn’t do much offensively in Sunday’s fourth quarter, but he did play solid defense in the final 6:43 on Irving, his friend who managed just two points in that stretch on 1-of-5 shooting. James was content to let Wade do the scoring.
“He was just in an attack mode,” James said. “I switched over to Kyrie and kind of put my focus on him, understanding how great he is in the fourth quarter. I just tried to worry about containing him as much as possible and let D-Wade handle the offense.”
Obviously, the awesome James has the ability to play impressive offense and defense in the same stretch. But the way Wade was going offensively, perhaps James could afford to sit back and watch.
When the Cavaliers made a stunning recovery from a 22-point third-quarter deficit to take a 97-89 lead with less than five minutes remaining, one figured it would be time for James to bail out the Heat. Instead, it became Wade’s world.
Wade hit a jumper and made a layup for an old-fashioned three-point play to cut the deficit to 97-94. He later added two layups and the driving dunk, giving him 11 of Miami’s final 20 points.
“It’s symbolic of the way he’s playing the season,” Spoelstra said of Wade’s strong closing performance. “He’s getting stronger as the season is going on.”
On Oscar night, Dwyane Wade played the role of LeBron James. It was a seamless transition.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson.