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 had worn 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. 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. He'd had his early moments through the first three games of the Finals, but had struggled to close them. That wasn't the case Thursday. Eighteen of Wade's points came in the second half.
Slowed by an apparent knee injury, Wade hadn't scored more than 22 points since March 17. His 32 matched his high since March 4. He also became the first player to have at least 30 points and six steals in Finals game since Detroit Pistons Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas did it in 1988.
James wasn't too bad, either, totaling 33 points and 10 rebounds. For the first time in these Finals, the Heat's Big Three looked that the powerful trio that carried Miami to last year's championship.
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 run at the end of the second quarter, largely controlled the game. Their defense, shredded by the Spurs' 3-point shooting in Game 3, produced seven blocked shots and 13 steals.
James also 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 also took advantage of a key tactical change by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
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 Spurs coach Gregg 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.
The change also might have had an undesired effect on the Heat. Often playing with only one true big man on the floor – Chris Anderson, an important part of Miami's bench during the postseason, didn't play in the first half – the Heat had a tougher time keeping Parker from penetrating into the lane and finishing.
The hamstring injury that forced Parker to the bench in the second of half of Game 3 and threatened to keep him there for Game 4, also 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.
Turns out, Parker was more than ready to go. He just had trouble finishing. Parker 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.
With Wade matching James' dominant performance with his own, that was more than enough to give the Heat the push they needed.