For all the talk that the Miami Heat's championship reign rested squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James, that these NBA Finals would turn on how well or poorly the King played,Dwyane Wade knew the truth. If the Heat were going to beat the San Antonio Spurs, he would need to play better, too.
James wore his shooting shirt like a cape to the Heat's practice on Wednesday, making a show of his declaration to lead his teammates into Game 4. Turns out, Wade preferred to wait until tipoff to put on the real one.
Looking like the Wade of old instead of Old Wade, he totaled 32 points, six rebounds, four assists and six steals to lead the Heat to a 109-93 Game 4 victory over the Spurs Thursday night at the AT&T Center. The victory squares the series at 2-2 and assures the Finals will return to Miami for a sixth game, if not also a seventh. If the Spurs are going to dethrone the Heat, they will have to win at least once more on the Heat's court.
For that, the Heat can thank Wade as much as James. Wade had his moments early in the first three games of the Finals, but he also struggled to close those games. That wasn't the case Thursday. Eighteen of Wade's points came in the second half.
"He was '06 Flash tonight," James said. "And we needed every bit of him."
Wade's 32 matched his high since March 4. He hadn't scored more than 22 points since March 17. He also became the first player to have at least 30 points and six steals in a Finals game since Detroit Pistons Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas did it in 1988.
"I needed a game like this," Wade said, "but my teammates needed a game like this from me. Needed me to be aggressive. Needed me to play the way that I'm capable of."
James wasn't too bad, either, totaling 33 points and 10 rebounds. Chris Bosh added 20 points and 13 rebounds. For the first time in these Finals, the Heat's Big Three looked like the powerful trio that carried Miami to last year's championship.
"When those guys play like that, you better be playing a more perfect game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
From James to Wade to Bosh, the Heat came into Game 4 with a renewed sense of urgency. No team has ever won the Finals after trailing 3-1 in the series, and Miami had little interest in trying to become the first.
The Heat spotted the Spurs an early 10-point lead, but aside from another Spurs run at the end of the second quarter, Miami largely controlled the game. The Heat's defense, shredded by the Spurs' 3-point shooting in Game 3, produced seven blocked shots and 13 steals, resulting in 19 San Antonio turnovers.
"We understood this was a survival game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
James had vowed to play better after a sometimes-listless performance in Game 3, and he made good on his promise. He attacked the Spurs in transition, took the ball into the post and took advantage of a key tactical change by Spoelstra.
"As bad as I played in Game 3, I put all the pressure on me to say I can't afford to play like that and hope for us to win," James said. "Not at this level.
"So I was able to forget about it. It hurt. I watched the film. It hurt watching it. I didn't like the way I was playing. But I just came in with a whole new slate tonight&hellip"
To better spread the floor for James and discourage the Spurs from trying to crowd the lane with multiple defenders, the Heat started Mike Miller in place of Udonis Haslem. Miami's lineup change quickly made Popovich also go small in the game's opening minute by inserting guard Gary Neal in place of center Tiago Splitter.
"We need to impose our identity more than we did last game," Spoelstra said before the game.
Even the Spurs would agree the Heat accomplished their goal.
The hamstring injury that forced Tony Parker to the bench in the second of half of Game 3 and threatened to keep him there for Game 4 did little to slow the All-Star point guard in the first half. Popovich proclaimed Parker "ready to go" at the Spurs' morning shootaround, and Parker thrice-repeated his coach's declaration – likely under his coach's order – that he would be "ready to go" come game time.
By the end of Thursday night, it was apparent that Parker had been more ready to go than ready to close. He scored the Spurs' first basket, had 11 points in the first quarter and led their comeback from a nine-point deficit late in the second quarter. He finished the first half with 15 points, using his late charge to send the Spurs into halftime with the game tied at 49.
The problem for the Spurs: Parker also finished the third quarter with 15 points. And he finished the final quarter with 15 points. The Heat did a better job of corralling him with multiple defenders in the second half, stifling the Spurs' offensive attack. Popovich and Tim Duncan credited the Heat's defense. Parker said he was a bit fatigued.
"Overall, I'm just happy I didn't make [the hamstring injury] worse," Parker said. "That was the goal, to not try to get hurt because Pop was not really happy – meaning I wanted to play and took a little risk."
As Parker idled in the second half, Manu Ginobili provided little support. Neal and Danny Green, who combined for 13 3-pointers in each Game 3, still shot well in Game 4 with three threes apiece, but the Heat denied them more opportunities.
James didn't have the same problem. Help? Led by Wade, James had plenty of it.