Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Superman Returns

Game Three of the Pistons-Heat series was significant for a variety of reasons: Miami took a 2-1 lead in the series (a lead that would swell to 3-1 two nights later), Chauncey Billups regressed into a former version of himself that Boston Celtics fans would recognize (read: a point guard that dribbles for the entire shot clock every time down the court), Antoine Walker beat Rasheed Wallace off the dribble approximately 712 times, and – most importantly, the Real Dwyane Wade returned to the forefront.

Let me clarify something before I go any further. D-Wade has been great in the 2006 Postseason. His efficient performance in Game One against Detroit was an instructional video on “how to overcome foul trouble.” He had several performances against New Jersey that were terrific. However, for the bulk of the 2006 playoffs, Wade has been teasing us. He’s had moments here and there where he shown glimpses of the Superhero that was born in the 2005 postseason. You remember that guy, right? The one that elevated his game to near Jordan levels and launched conversations about the 2003 Draft Revisited (the favorite argument was: “Who would you take number one now? Wade or LeBron?). Many pundits and publications anointed Wade as the “best player in the NBA” in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and while that might have been the result of getting caught up in the moment, it sure wasn’t very far off either.

Then Wade mysteriously hurt his rib, the Pistons backed their way into another NBA Finals (you can read the column I wrote about this last year for more information), and everyone quickly forgot about Wade’s incredible run. In fact, other than a brief flurry of MVP talk this season, Wade was largely ignored despite posting monster numbers and emerging as one of the best players in the world. But that is the way of modern sports – out of sight, out of mind. The Heat weren’t much of a story this year (an obvious contender that slowly played its way into shape), so Wade was bypassed for grander tales such as LeBron’s ascension (understandable), Elton Brand and the Clippers turning things around, Kobe scoring like a madman, Nash and the Suns staying afloat without Amare, Dirk and the Mavs becoming elite, and Billups and the Pistons taking a run at 70 wins. Nobody gave Wade much thought at all.

Obviously, the playoffs are the time when all of that changes. No longer does the media control the storylines, but rather the storylines control the media. If the Pistons squeak past the Cavs, they have to write about how “resilient” Detroit is. If the Nets get blown out by the Heat, there go all of your “nobody wants to play the Nets” stories (the dumbest ESPN the Magazine cover of all time). That is what I love about the postseason – all that matters is what happens on the court. Everyone sees pretty much every game, so you can’t spin things to your liking. You just have to say it like it is.

That’s why I was excited for Wade to offer up his own version of “Superman Returns” this summer. He’s been overlooked this year despite being one of the two or three most exciting players in the game. Heck, he’s one of the two or three best players in the game. And I knew the playoffs would prove that. The stage was set. Cue the John Williams score!

The only problem is that Wade struggled out of the gate. He looked sluggish and out of sorts against the Bulls. He seemed to be picking his spots for the first few games against the Nets. He was foul and turnover plagued in the first two games of the Pistons series. What was the problem? Was he hurt? Is Riley so focused on going to Shaq that Wade’s game is suffering? It wasn’t as if D-Wade was playing poorly – far from it. However, his brilliance was coming in spurts, as if he couldn’t sustain one of those masterpiece performances that we’ve come to expect from him.

Then there was Game Three. He attacked the rim early, scoring easy baskets and setting up Shaq for dunks. He pulled up and hit jumpers. He got to the free throw line. He picked up a crucial “and one” in the second quarter that got the crowd into a frenzy (for a Miami crowd, at least). And then in the second half, he kept up the pace. Even after he missed two big free throws in the fourth quarter, it didn’t seem to faze him as he was right back at it, tormenting the Pistons as he closed them out in style. All told, he finished with 35 points, 8 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals while going 9-for-11 from the line and an astounding 13-for-17 from the field. It was vintage Wade. The type of game that sticks with you and makes you aware that you are watching greatness unfold on your television screen. An MJ game. A Superman game.

Two nights later he did it again. Jumpers in transition, forays into the paint that left the Pistons defense tattered and torn, a steady march to the free throw line. Throw in the best defense I’ve ever seen Wade play and it was a masterpiece. Even when he disappeared (on offense – his defense was still fantastic) in the third quarter, it just felt like he was biding his time for a frenzied finish. It still felt like he was controlling the game. Then “The Drive” (can we call it that?) when he glided down the lane, absorbed a hit from McDyess (who is going to kill somebody one of these days with those faux charge attempts where he slides under an airborne player), and somehow slung the ball over his shoulder, off the glass, and through the basket. Moments later, with the shot clock about to expire and Rip Hamilton draped over him like a track suit, Wade fired from 22 feet … nothing but net. Game over. He finished with 31, 6, and 5 with 2 steals, 2 blocks, and only 2 turnovers. He shot an almost unbelievable 8-for-11 from the field. He held Hamilton to a measly 11 points. His numbers have been better, but I’m not sure Wade has ever had a better game.

Yes, Superman has returned.

The only remaining question is: what is Wade’s kryptonite? Personally, I think that he’s been banged up and that his wrist never quite healed this year. And I think that Miami is being more intentional about feeding Shaq, which is taking away some of the flow from Wade’s game. I don’t think there is anyone in the league that can stop him. That said, I think there may be a little bit of kryptonite out there. The only players that seem to give him any trouble whatsoever are smaller guards that play low to the ground.

In the Chicago series, Wade had a couple of rough nights. Most attributed this to the pressure of playing in his hometown, but I think it had more to do with Kirk Hinrich’s defense. Hinrich might be the best guy in the league at guarding D-Wade. He is tough, relentless, quicker than people realize, and he plays very low to the ground. He’s also a smart player and is adept at funneling Wade toward help defense rather than trying to guard him straight up. This is really the only way you can even hope to guard him and Hinrich does it flawlessly.

The interesting thing about the Detroit series is that for two consecutive years, a healthy D-Wade has treated the Pistons like a practice squad. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants against them. Ironically, Detroit has their own version of Hinrich in Lindsay Hunter. He is smaller and older than the Bulls’ guard (and certainly not as good in any way, shape, or form), but he is a step quicker and has mastered the art of using his chest and drawing charges. In Game One, Hunter had a stretch where he picked up a charge, nearly picked up a second charge, and grabbed a steal. In Game Two he forced Wade into a variety of turnovers. Then in Game Three he was inserted into the lineup and you could see the wheels turning in Wade’s mind. It was as if he said, “Okay, no charging fouls this time, I am just going to shoot over this little guy.” So he pulled up and hit a jumper from the deep corner. Then he stopped in transition and hit a 19-footer. And then Flip Saunders gave up and put Hamilton back on Wade. Big mistake. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why Saunders did this. Yes, Wade hit two jumpers, but wouldn’t you rather take your chances there than let him get to the rim? It makes no sense.

In Game Four, Saunders went with Hunter for longer stretches, but Wade simply shot over him, took him to the block and spun away (to eliminate the chance that Hunter could flop and draw a charge), and went backdoor for alley-oops. Hunter didn’t have a chance. And you know what? Hinrich wouldn’t have had a chance either. Nobody would have. Not against a guy playing perfectly in every aspect of the game.

What does it all mean? It means that Superman is here to stay and that there may be no kryptonite. And it might just mean that LeBron is going to have a fight on his hands for the title of “best player in the game” for the next decade. Yes, Wade is that good. And he’s back. All the way back.

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