With season on line, Dwyane Wade arrives with force

When the Heat needed it most, Dwyane Wade was able to turn in a defining performance.

MIAMI — Dwyane Wade was asked about guys who became part of NBA postseason lore by playing through serious injuries. Yet it was suggested he wasn’t as hurt as Willis Reed or Isiah Thomas.

Suddenly, Wade interrupted.

“How do you know?’’ he said.

Maybe Wade was hurting Monday night as much as Reed, when he limped out during the 1970 Finals, or Thomas, who played on a severely sprained ankle in the 1988 Finals. Maybe it won’t be known until one day it comes out in his book.

Nevertheless, Wade wasn’t in good shape with the bone bruise on his right knee that has hampered him throughout the postseason. He was coming off a brutal pair of games in the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers in which he had shot a combined 6 of 19 for 20 points.

But it was Game 7 at AmericanAirlines Arena. The shooting guard figured he had to reach down and come up with something.

“I’m going to play through pain because this is my job,’’ Wade said. “My team depends on me. ... I’ve been through so much away from the game and in the game that I’ll find a way.’’

Wade did just that in the 99-76 rout of the Pacers. He had a gritty 21 points and nine rebounds as the Heat won their third straight East title. They will face the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals in a series that begins Thursday in Miami.

With center Chris Bosh also struggling mightily in the series, many believed Heat star LeBron James would have to win Monday’s game largely by himself. James had a typical Game 7 showing with 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists while making his career scoring average in four such games 33.8.

But James got some help. Bosh scored just nine points but had all of his eight rebounds in a first half in which Miami led 52-37. Guard Ray Allen, who also had been slumping, drilled three 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 10 points.

Wade, though, was the key to providing James help. The 10-year veteran is the long-term face of Miami’s franchise, and James wanted to help him.

“The first play of the game, I called a play for D-Wade,’’ James said. “Even though he didn’t shoot the ball, he got a good touch in the paint. Just to make him feel like he was part of the offense, make him feel in a good rhythm. I called a couple of sets for him early in the game.’’

It worked. Wade scored Miami’s first four points and had 10 by halftime. He had 19 through the third quarter when the Heat had a 76-55 lead and the game was all but over.

“He was like his old self,’’ Miami guard Mario Chalmers said.

Wade slashed to the hoop. Indiana players had to be wondering at times the identity of that blur speeding by in the left lane.

“That’s probably the hardest he’s played just in terms of effort,’’ Pacers forward David West said. “We knew at times he was in and out of the series just in terms of his impact. ... He beat us in the effort department and he physically played harder than we had seen in the previous six games.’’

Another move by James helped in that area. James suggested before the game he take potent Indiana forward Paul George while Wade guarded Lance Stephenson.

James, a four-time MVP, did his part by helping hold George to a meager seven points on 2-of-9 shooting. George had told FOX Sports Florida before the game he expects to win an MVP award of his own one of these days. Well, he still has a ways to go.

“Any little pressure I could take off D-Wade, I wanted to do that,’’ James said of the defensive switch. “I want to allow him to focus on his offense, not have to worry about stopping Paul George every possession. ... That was huge for him.’’

Wade ended a career-long drought of not having reached 20 points in 12 straight games. It was hardly a perfect night considering Wade shot 7 of 16 and had five turnovers. But it was what the Heat needed.

“Physically, I did everything I could to feel as good as I can,’’ said Wade, 31. “I thought we came out with the right mentality and put everything else behind us and focused on the game. ... I just came out in the game with a different mindset just to be aggressive.’’

Bosh, who had been near tears after shooting 1 of 8 for five points in Saturday’s 91-77 loss in Game 6, had vowed to also come out more aggressive. And he did.

Bosh’s eight rebounds in the first half were more than he had gotten in any of the previous eight games. True, he didn’t grab any after intermission. But he played solid defense much of the night while blocking three shots and outplaying Indiana center Roy Hibbert when the game mattered.

Hibbert padded his stats when the outcome no longer was in doubt and finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. But that was still below his series averages coming in of 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. Hibbert’s lack of dominance was a key reason why the Heat outrebounded the Pacers 43-36 a game after being battered 53-33 on the boards.

“They took it upon themselves to get engaged and aggressive in the game,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said about Wade and Bosh. “Defensively, wow, (Bosh) was playing with a great motor. ... The same thing for Dwyane. He just found a way to dig deep. ... He knew this was a moment that we had to have and somehow he was able to just to will that game despite what he was going through.’’

When the dust settled, the Heat avoided what would have been a colossal upset. They become the first East team to earn three straight Finals appearances since Chicago from 1996-98.

The Heat lost the 2011 Finals to Dallas before defeating Oklahoma City last year. James now will get a chance at revenge considering his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals.

“I’m a much better player (now),’’ said James, who vowed to “savor this win’’ until he turns his attention Tuesday to San Antonio. “I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals. ... So, yeah, we’re all better.’’

Well, that’s not the case with Wade. Yes, he was thrilled with Monday’s win, but he knows it’s not going to be easy dragging his knee through what could be another long series.

“There will be some moments next series where I won’t be looking so great. I’m sure there will be some great headlines out there about myself,’’ said Wade, laughing about all the speculation of the guard being near the end of his career. “I’ll continue pushing. I’ll continue to try to do what I can to bring the Miami Heat another championship.’’

Considering Reed and Thomas both had their legendary moments in the Finals, maybe Wade truly can have one against the Spurs that goes down in NBA lore.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson.

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