To play or not to play? For Dwyane Wade, that is the question.
The situation surrounding Wade's thrice-bruised right knee isn't quite tragic enough to render him the NBA's answer to Hamlet, though it's no less crucial to the Miami Heat's hopes of defending their Larry O'Brien Trophy.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported after the Heat's 88-65 flattening of the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 that the second-quarter collision between the knees of Wade and Jimmy Butler reignited the pain that has dogged Dwyane since a March 6 meeting with the Orlando Magic.
Wade came back to score six points in just under 14 minutes of play after leaving for the locker room in the first half on Monday.
According to ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh and Michael Wallace, Wade is currently questionable to play in Game 5 against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday after undergoing treatment on his balky knee during Miami's day off. Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida, however, tweeted that Dwyane will have some sway over whether or not he suits up for what figures to be a closeout game for the Heat at home:
But should he? Should Wade get to decide whether he plays or sits Wednesday?
That depends on whether or not good old-fashioned "R&R" can restore his knee to its former strength and whether the Heat's training staff can mitigate its symptoms from game to game.
Chances are, Wade will play if he has his way. After all, he's an elite athlete with a championship pedigree, not to mention that he's persevered through his fair share of discomfort before. The hyper-competitive shooting guard made clear his intention to play to Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald: “There’s really nothing that you can do. I’ve tried to exhaust all possibility, but it is what it is.”
As Windhorst pointed out in his piece, with an anecdote from renowned trainer Tim Grover's book Relentless, Wade did everything in his power to keep himself on the court in the face of an injury to his left knee that would require offseason surgery.
With Grover's help, Wade averaged 23.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks in 40.4 minutes during the last three games of the 2012 NBA Finals, as the Heat clinched their second title in franchise history.
But the circumstances are far different this time around.
Last year, Wade was able to perform effectively despite an injury that wasn't likely to worsen with more time on the court. He had fluid drained from a swollen left knee during Miami's second-round series against the Indiana Pacers and went in for a quick scope shortly after the postseason came to a close.
This year, Wade's dealing with an injury that can only get better with rest and grow more severe without it. This would be bad news for any player, but especially for D-Wade, whose game is so strongly predicated on fearlessness and athleticism.
His jump shot is still deadly, but he's anything but the sort of perimeter threat who can thrive with a less injurious, more spot-up-oriented approach to the game. A knee injury of this sort saps Wade of both the integrity of his knee and his trust in it, resulting in the sort of reduced effectiveness that we've seen from the Heat star thus far.
It's clear that Wade's game is suffering. His scoring is down to 12.3 points a game in these playoffs and just 11.3 opposite the Bulls. Moreover, he's failed to earn a free throw in three of Miami's four games against Chicago, marking the first such stretch of his 10-year pro career.
And at the age of 31, it's not as though his body is going to recover any faster than before.
Most signs, then, would point to rest as the best option for Dwyane in Game 5, but the choice is still far from cut-and-dry. His status will likely come down to a few key queries for Miami.
1. To what extent can the Heat succeed without him in the lineup?
A massive one—against the Bulls, anyway. The Heat are 12-2 without Wade this season, including their 88-77 closeout of the Bucks in Game 4 of the opening series.
Miami should, at the very least, be able to put the Bulls out of their misery while Wade watches from the bench. The Heat have fared just fine in this series with Wade operating far below full capacity, and Chicago has plenty of its own health-related concerns (i.e. Joakim Noah's foot, Derrick Rose's knee, Kirk Hinrich's calf, Luol Deng's immune system and so on).
As for a third-round series against, say, the Indiana Pacers? That's a different story entirely, given Indy's ability to give the Heat fits, even with Wade in the mix.
2. How much good will rest do for D-Wade at this point?
At this point, not much.
Wade missed six games in a row and nine of 14 overall between late March and the end of the regular season and still couldn't avoid re-injury last series. He took 10 days off between Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks and Game 1 against the Bulls and still looked hobbled before a seemingly innocuous knock of the knees with Jimmy Butler sent him back to the bench.
Any rest is good rest right now, but there just doesn't seem to be enough of it to a noticeable difference.
3. How healthy does he need to be to help the Heat?
Not that healthy, as far as Erik Spoelstra is concerned (via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald):
He’s a battler, he’s a warrior, he’ll fight through it, and he never makes excuses for anything and he’s giving us everything he’s got and he’s giving us minutes that help us win – that’s the bottom line. I know everyone’s looking at how many shots he’s getting up and how many points he can score. He’s at a point where he knows every series is different, every game is different and the whole point is help us win and he’s doing that.
Is he coming in there and creating 30 a night? No, but he’s creating a lot of good things for us, defensively he’s competing, giving us a presence from the perimeter position to help rebound. And then offensively he’s making the right plays and oftentimes that’s to throw it back and let the ball start moving, so he’ll continue to get in better rhythm. He had some good actions [Monday night] that hopefully we can lean and build on for Wednesday.
Therein lies the rub for coach Spo and the Heat. Wade's mere presence improves Miami's chances of closing out Chicago in five. Such a quick finish would grant the entire team (Dwyane included) ample time off before the Eastern Conference Finals, which won't begin until May 21 at the earliest, according to NBA.com.
If the Heat rest Wade now, they run a marginally greater risk of losing Game 5 and, in turn, needing D-Wade in tow to close out the Bulls in six or seven games. That would not only infringe on his recovery time, but also require him to exert even more effort before a grueling grind back to the Finals.
That being said, it would behoove the Heat to shelve Dwyane for the time being. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the rest of Miami's roster have collectively shown that they can play well enough to win in his absence, so long as they apply pressure defensively and knock down threes on the offensive end.
The Heat already have the Bulls on the ropes, and though the prospect of elimination figures to ignite Chicago's survival instincts, there's only so much that Tom Thibodeau can squeeze out of his tired, depleted squad at this point.
There's no such thing as a "gimme" in the playoffs, but Miami's odds of moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals at the moment are about as close to surefire as any team has seen in some time. It's imperative, then, that the Heat take it easy with Wade now so as to bolster their case to be Eastern Conference and NBA champions later.