PHILADELPHIA — If this is it for Dwyane Wade, it’s a quiet exit for the biggest star in Heat history.
He doesn’t seem like he’d have a problem with that.
Wade came back to the Heat unassumingly two months ago and maintained that approach through the end, which came in a 104-91 loss to the 76ers to close out their first-round playoff series in five games. Philadelphia goes on with hopes of challenging for the Eastern Conference title, and Wade heads back to South Florida to contemplate his future.
“Y’all know I’ve given it thought,” he said when asked if he’s retiring.
Then he looked around the media room at Wells Fargo Center and smiled.
“This is Philly and I love Philly, but there ain’t gonna be no breaking news here,” he said. “I appreciate y’all’s concern, but we’ll worry about that later. I ain’t gonna break nothing here.”
That’ll probably wait at least a couple of months. Wade hasn’t dwelled on it much lately. His mind has been engrossed in trying to will the Heat out of a 3-1 hole.
He was out there when Miami made its fiercest effort to get back into the game after falling behind 76-59 with a little under three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Heat pushed back with a strong start to the fourth quarter and pulled within eight on a classic drive by Wade off a give-and-go with Tyler Johnson. He didn’t look 36 when he lifted off and powered through heavy contact at the rim for a reverse layup.
“I wanted to have those moments throughout this playoff series,” he said. “I wanted to have a moment tonight. My body wasn’t — my wrist and my elbow wasn’t aligning with me. But I had a couple of them that made me feel good about the work put in this summer. I worked my tail off. That’s what it’s all about.”
Wade played 31 minutes, his third-most extended action this year, and finished with off the bench and finished 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting, five assists and five rebounds. The Heat outscored Philadelphia by seven points when he was on the floor.
This is how Wade seemed to want it from the time he returned to Miami in a February trade that offered him and the franchise a chance to patch up the messy split that took place two years ago.
He enjoyed the reunion, but he underplayed it.
He didn’t come back to be a star, and he made that clear in a team meeting shortly after his arrival. He told his teammates he was grateful for how they welcomed him and talked about doing his best to fit in. They stared back bewilderedly at the franchise’s all-time icon. Wasn’t this his team all along?
“He has that kind of awareness and humility,” said Erik Spoelstra, who feared that he’d get too emotional if he started thinking about this being Wade’s final game. “He didn’t want to step in and step on somebody else’s role. He just wanted to fit in and be one of the guys.
“I’ve coached him as a leading scorer in the league (and) as a champion in this league where he had to take a secondary role to the best player in the league. I’ve coached him now in this role. None of us would have ever imagined Dwyane Wade would be coming off the bench. But he’s handled all of these roles with incredible class and dignity.”
Spoelstra joked that Wade could play off his bench forever if he wants. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.
Wade gave Miami 12 points per game on 40.9 percent shooting in some well-rounded minutes during the regular season and upped it to 16.6 on 44.3 percent in the playoffs. The Heat offense needed a spark, and picking up Wade wasn’t merely a sentimental move.
“He knew what the deal was,” Spoelstra said. “We were already kind of set with our rotation.
“It was one of the first things he said: ‘I don’t want to disrupt anything. I’ll come off the bench. I’ll play with the second unit and we’ll make this work. Don’t worry about me.’ That’s awesome. There’s probably not a lot of Hall of Fame players who still have his ability that would still be willing to do that.”
Wade seems to have effectively compartmentalized the retirement speculation — internal and external — over the past week or so. He’s always said he doesn’t want a sendoff like the one Kobe Bryant enjoyed two years ago and he’s treated the last few days like any others.
Maybe it’s because he’s coming back. Maybe that’s just his personality.
“When I say I’ve gotta make a decision, that’s in the summer,” Wade said. “When you’re in the fight, when you’re in the battle, you focus on that. You focus on what you need to do. When you let your mind go, it’s over with already.”
He went through Tuesday morning’s shootaround at the Temple University practice facility like usual, and gave a light chuckle when it was pointed out afterward that no one asked him if he was retiring this time.
A crowd of students waited for him as the team walked through the lobby out to its buses parked on Broad Street. He stopped a few times on his way out for some selfies before being ushered him to the door, knowing there was no way he could fill every request.
This has been the norm for Wade after every road shootaround for years, even after the Big Three era. There’s little doubt that if he wanted a victory lap next season, the fans would gladly give it to him. The elite class of players who merit that level of celebration is small, and he’s clearly a member.
It’s telling that his fellow players don’t seem to treat him much differently from the fans.
Wade and the Heat were sent home at the hands of a team whose two brightest stars are just beginning their career. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are 24 and 21 years old, respectively, and both were in grade school when Wade burst into the NBA in 2003.
They’re at the center of a team that will contend in the East now and for years to come. It’s logical for anyone, including their players, to think that based on what they’ve done this season.
Wade’s advice, as someone who’s won three titles and been on a lottery team, was not to assume anything. There was a stoppage with 1.8 seconds left, and he grabbed Simmons for a quick word, then Embiid wrapped him up in a hug after the buzzer.
“He just told me to keep working and that I had a bright future,” Embiid said. “I had to pay my respect because I wasn’t sure if this was his last year. I wanted to thank him for what he’s done for the game. He’s done an amazing job. He’s going to be a Hall of Famer.”
Embiid knows. They all know.
Wade won’t need a farewell tour for validation. He can walk away just like this, and they won’t forget.
CAMDEN, N.J. — There’s a feeling among the 76ers that they were fortunate to escape Miami with a narrow victory in Game 4 of this first-round playoff series. It’s not that they were lucky, necessarily, but more so a sense that it’ll be nearly impossible to duplicate a performance in which they overcame an absurd 27 turnovers.
There’s a simple remedy for sloppy basketball, as Philadelphia coach Brett Brown explained before practice today.
“You can walk it up the floor and you can have your two best players play slow and play conservative,” Brown said, droning on so monotonously that he seemed bored by his own voice. Then he paused and added, “And we’re not doing it.”
The 76ers are looking to knock out the Heat on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center, and they’ll try to do it with the same hastened pace that’s made their offense a challenge to contain throughout the series.
They were the first team since 1986 to win a postseason game despite having that many turnovers, and they’d like to clean that up, but not at the expense of changing who they are.
“It’s the slippery slope we live,” Brown said. “We want to play fast and we want to play free and we want to share the ball.”
He needs his stars to tighten up in order to get the offense clicking again.
All-star center Joel Embiid, who had been out since late March with an orbital fracture and concussion prior to his debut in Game 3, had eight of those turnovers, which Brown attributed to obstructed vision from the protective mask he wore and the difficulty of regaining his rhythm after the layoff.
Ben Simmons, the best player for either team in the series, also had seven turnovers.
The 76ers overcame those issues, which left them down 12 in the third quarter, by locking down defensively in the fourth, when they also limited their turnovers to three and turned seven offensive rebounds into seven second-chance points. They outscored Miami 33-19 over the final 13 minutes.
Philadelphia has averaged almost 117 points per game in this series, posted an offensive efficiency of 111.7 and made more 3-pointers (50) than any other team in the playoffs. They’ve shown some of the league’s best flow and ball circulation on offense, which has helped them have four players averaging at least 18 points per game against Miami.
The outlier was the Heat’s 113-103 victory in Game 2, which featured a memorable performance by Dwyane Wade with 28 points. While Wade’s heroics are the lasting image of that night for most who saw it, the more important point might be what Miami did defensively.
The Heat were highly disruptive that night with an old-school, bullying defense that kept Philadelphia from getting to its game. The 76ers shot 41.7 percent, a dip from the 46.9 they’ve hit otherwise. They actually controlled the ball decently in that game and committed a tolerable 14 turnovers.
It’s worth noting that they didn’t have Embiid then, but the overall feel is what Brown anticipates in Game 5.
“Think about their last memory — Their last memory here was winning, and they did it with a certain style,” Brown said. “We get it. You don’t have to be a wise man to know what is about to happen, what style of play they’re going to try to play, especially when they’re gonna go home if they’re not able to find a win.”
Their fear, though, is that a continuation of their careless offense from Saturday combined with what should be a tenacious effort from a Heat team facing elimination will extend the series.
“We realize that having that many turnovers in a playoff game is a recipe for disaster,” guard J.J. Redick said. “We have to be a lot better there.”
“I’d rather be in their position, I’ll tell you that, figuring out how to close out 3-1,” Wade said after his 25-point performance nearly lifted the Heat back to victory after they let a double-digit, late-third-quarter lead slip away. “From our standpoint it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be one of the hardest things we’ve tried to accomplish as a team to try to bring it back here to Miami, and we gotta understand that.
“We gotta go in and put our hard hats on and go after it. We can’t worry about them. They’re in a good position. We’re the ones trying to come from behind. So we’ll see what happens Tuesday.”
The Heat, despite coming from 3-1 down to win a playoff series only once in franchise history, are not finished in this first-round, Eastern Conference series. Simple math proves that.
But they will be finished after Tuesday night’s Game 5 back in Philly if they don’t find a way to finish.
Like finishing at the basket. Miami in Game 3 was 25-for-46 on shots at the rim, missing layups and short jumpers, many on shots intimidated by Philadelphia’s 7-foot, 260-pound center Joel Embiid, who officially was credited with five blocks and whose rim protection “won us the game,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said.
Like finishing at the free-throw line. Coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t mask his feelings after Saturday’s loss. The Heat let one get away, partly by missing nearly half of their foul shots, going 13-for-25 from the line.
Like finishing defensive possessions. Miami has been crushed on the glass in the series (and was outrebounded 57-43 in Game 4), but the 76ers have done particular damage with offensive rebounds at crucial times to score on putbacks or by kicking them out for 3-pointers.
But, mostly, the Heat have to get better at finishing games — or their season will be finished after one more.
On Saturday, Miami led 81-71 with 3:09 to play in the third quarter. From there, the 76ers went on a 21-4 run, bolstered by missed shots close to the basket, blown defensive assignments and poor rebounding by Miami. Wade scored seven straight points as Miami cut a seven-point deficit to one in the closing seconds, but he also missed a crucial free throw in the final seconds. Miami also let 76ers rookie guard Ben Simmons barrel down the lane uncontested for a two-handed dunk and on Philadelphia’s next possession left J.J. Redick, one of the NBA’s best shooters, all alone for an easy jumper.
“It was one of those moments where, for me, I just wanted us to get a stop or two,” Wade said. “I felt like I could win us one at home. We couldn’t get it. We made some mistakes down in the end. They made us pay. … Whether it’s getting offensive rebounds or miscommunications, we had to do a better job.”
The series has been physical, fast, fun and highly competitive. Neither team is acting like it’s a 3-1 series.
“We are going to Philadelphia looking forward to playing for an amazing home-court advantage,” said Brown, who said his team probably had “no right winning” Saturday’s game after how sloppily it played the first three quarters and finishing with 27 turnovers. “We are going to come in, bunker down and try to get better. We sure hope that equals a win.”
His young, talented point guard echoed the sentiment. “We have to finish it,” Simmons said. “We have to be locked in for that game coming up.”
Spoelstra knows his team has to finish or be finished.
“We all feel that we’re this close, and that’s what makes this game tough,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve had a tough time finishing games against Philadelphia, and that’s been the issue.”
MIAMI — If there’s one play that represents the aggressive and physical style the Heat used to defeat the Sixers in Game 2, it probably involves the matchup between Justise Winslow and Ben Simmons.
With the Heat ahead 34-31 in the second quarter, Winslow picked Simmons up the full length of the court and stayed with him until eventually drawing an offensive foul on the Sixers’ point guard. After the play, an emotional Winslow yelled some not-so-nice words in Simmons’ direction.
How did the Heat impersonate Simmons while preparing for Saturday’s Game 1 of their series against the Sixers? 6-foot-7 forward Derrick Jones Jr., who is not eligible for the postseason roster as a two-way contract player, took on the role of Simmons in Friday’s practice in Miami and 6-foot-9 assistant coach Juwan Howard acted as Simmons in Saturday morning’s shootaround in Philadelphia.
“You have to face him competitively first and foremost,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Simmons, who averaged 14.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists in four regular-season games against Miami. “He’s a special talent. Things will be decided in between those four lines. You have to deal with him with a great deal of respect and then you have to compete and our guys understand that. There’s a lot of things he does that are not scripted. That’s why it comes down to competition and finding a way.”
Howard played 19 seasons in the NBA as a power forward before joining the Heat’s coaching staff prior to the 2013-14 season. He averaged 13.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists during his NBA career.
“Juwan could still play,” Spoelstra said when asked about Howard playing the role of Simmons on Saturday. “He could still play 8 to 10 minutes. I say that all the time. He and [assistant coach] Chris Quinn still take the body fat test and they will take that to their grave I’m sure. They’re ready to roll.”
When the real game starts Saturday night, the Heat are expected to rotate between 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson, 6-foot-7 Justise Winslow and 6-foot-8 James Johnson as Simmons’ primary defender.
“I just try to watch as much film as possible on him and see if I can make my teammates better,” Jones said of simulating Simmons in practice. “Just trying to attack as much as possible, getting them as much prepared as we need to be.”
MIAMI — Ben Simmons presents a unique challenge for the Heat.
Simmons is a 6-foot-10, 230-pound point guard who took 88.1 percent of his shots from inside the paint this season. The 21-year-old only attempted 11 threes and missed all of them, and shot 30-of-119 from outside the paint (25.2 percent).