ATLANTA -- After missing nine games over a stretch of three weeks, Dwyane Wade knew he’d face plenty of questions Saturday in his return from a nagging hamstring injury.
Among the least of his concerns were the inquiries about rhythm.
With the two-time defending champion Miami Heat a week away from starting the playoffs, Wade brushed off suggestions he might initially struggle to re-establish the timing and continuity he’s had with LeBron James and Chris Bosh when the team performs at its best.
Wade instead countered with a bit of a history lesson. He pointed to the relatively turbulent 2010-11 season when the Heat’s Big Three first came together and stumbled off to that 9-8 start.
“We didn’t have rhythm our first year together, and we went to the Finals,” Wade said Saturday of overcoming kinks three years ago before Miami ultimately lost in six games to Dallas. “That’s not really a big worry of mine. The best rhythm for us is [having] all of us out there together on the floor, giving ourselves an opportunity every night ... to be a very, very good team. I just wanted to be back on the floor with them. That there, the rhythm, it will take care of itself.”
Wade’s play was the only silver lining from the Heat’s otherwise sluggish and lackluster performance in a 98-85 loss to the Hawks at Philips Arena. With the victory, Atlanta clinched the eighth and final playoff seed in the East and eliminated the New York Knicks from postseason contention.
And with the loss, the Heat (54-26) fell back into a tie with the Indiana Pacers (54-26) with two games remaining for both teams. A horrendous, 13-point third quarter was the difference in Saturday’s outcome for the Heat, which came a day after Miami dominated the Pacers in that same period to pull away for a victory that provided the half-game cushion in the standings.
But everything the Heat gained from one of their most impressive wins of the season a night earlier was squandered Saturday when they missed 19 of 25 attempts from 3-point range, 10 of 19 free throws and surrendered 29 points to the Hawks on 20 turnovers. Players and coaches acknowledged the blunders and admitted to lacking the focus, energy and defensive intensity that led to Saturday’s meltdown.
Yet overall, the Heat seemed relieved in the locker room after the game.
They were glad to be done with a brutal stretch of five games in seven nights that had taken a mental and physical toll on the team like no other week in the season. And they were far more encouraged by the return of Wade, who made his first seven shots and finished with 24 points on a 10-of-14 clip from the field in the 23 minutes he played in six-minute increments.
Wade’s night began with a dunk in transition on a pass from LeBron James during the Heat’s first possession of the game. For the past three weeks, it would have been the sort of transition moment James would have exploited, a one-on-one matchup in the open court to attack the basket.
Instead, he deferred.
“That was the best part about tonight; we were able to get him out on the floor, get him into a good rhythm,” said James, who had 27 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes. “Me personally, the first play of the game, I had a break versus Kyle Korver. I usually go for that. But knowing [Wade] has been out for a while, trying to get him his rhythm, I was able to dump it off to him. The best thing you can get coming off an injury is a layup or a dunk. To come out of this without a setback is the best part.”
The Heat have preached for weeks now that they much more prefer to enter the playoffs as healthy as possible than with the No. 1 seed in terms of how they’d manage the final stretch of the season. Their adherence to that philosophy somewhat explains the team’s festive mood just moments after falling flat in a loss to an opponent they could see in the first round of the playoffs next week.
And the Heat’s approach also sheds light on how they might approach the final two games of the season when they travel to face Washington on Monday and return home Wednesday against Philadelphia. James, Wade and Bosh each said after Saturday’s game that they would consult with coach Erik Spoelstra and the training staff to determine whether the best course of action is to sit out either or both of the last two games, which would provide a full week of rest heading into Game 1 of their first-round series.
Spoelstra said that every decision he makes right now will be based on the team’s overall health. He was encouraged by what he saw in Wade’s first game back since he sustained the hamstring injury in the final two minutes of a March 26 loss at Indiana. The Heat trailed by 11 with six minutes left in the fourth -- still within striking distance -- when Spoelstra maintained the minutes restriction plan and pulled Wade out although Miami’s second-leading scorer for the season showed no signs of slowing down.
“If we had gotten it closer,” Spoelstra said before shifting his thoughts. “[Our trainer] and Dwyane said he could [continue] to go if needed. Obviously, we were very encouraged by that. We’ll proceed with a very careful eye and see how he feels [Sunday]. He’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes. He probably felt like he should have been cleared a week ago, but we wanted to be very patient with him.”
Wade, who admitted Saturday the hamstring strain was more severe than he and the team initially thought, spent the past week pushing through rigorous workouts in practices, during morning shootarounds and on game nights before the team took the court for warm-ups.
On two occasions, Spoelstra suggested Wade was on the verge of returning but the team opted to hold him out under further precaution. On Friday, Wade went through three different workouts before the Heat’s game against the Pacers. After enduring another -- his fourth in a span of 24 hours -- he was cleared to play against the Hawks.
“I’ve just been a workout fiend,” Wade said. “It’s been good [to] go from where you can’t do much, and then when you start feeling it turn a little bit and then you start feel yourself getting a little better, then you feel yourself getting much better. Now, you’re able to start working and trying, as much as possible, to get some kind of flow, some kind of rhythm, some kind of confidence back in it. Being this close to the playoffs, I didn’t want to come back too soon. So it’s just trying to be as smart as I can be.”
The next time Wade and James work in tandem again could come in the playoffs.
While Wade suggested he hopes to continue to build from Saturday’s outing, James hinted that it just might be time for him to squeeze in a few days off before the postseason grind begins. As part of a routine that dates back to his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James prefers to take off the last week of the regular season. The decision usually is made easier by his teams having secured a specific playoff seed. That’s not the case this season with Miami, which could be locked into the battle with the Pacers for the top spot in the East through the final night of the regular season on Wednesday.
“I’ll be smart about it and go into the postseason as healthy as I can be,” James said of weighing his next decision. “The last three years, I’ve kind of done that, and I felt pretty good going into the postseason. Even after this seven-, eight-month grind, there’s nothing like the two months of the postseason. It’s harder than the eight months of the regular season. So I’ve got to be smart about it.”
Despite the loss, Saturday can be viewed as a win-win night for the Heat.
The result on the scoreboard was easily overshadowed by Wade’s return and James’ quest for rest.
No wonder they left Atlanta in a good mood.