CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The annoying Charlotte fan wearing the purple shirt in the courtside seat at Time Warner Cable Arena has been heckling Dwyane Wade for years, not just throughout the first-round playoff series between the Miami Heat and the Hornets.
But what Purple Shirt Dude couldn’t have known in Game 6 was that Wade entered Friday night with all the motivation the 13-year NBA veteran would need while facing elimination in a desperate attempt to keep his team’s postseason run alive.
Still, in the fourth quarter, that didn’t stop Purple Shirt Dude from shooting barbs Wade’s way.
“He was over there telling me I should retire,” Wade, 34, told ESPN.com in the locker room. “I’m like, ‘Whatever. Not yet.’ But he was on me.”
Asked about the exchange while at the podium later during his postgame news conference, Wade downplayed the banter. “I’m not going to give that guy any more attention,” he said.
That’s because the Heat can now focus their full attention on trying to win the series in Game 7 on Sunday back in Miami. Down 3-2 with their season on the brink, Wade scored 10 of his team-high 23 points in a fourth-quarter flurry that included the reluctant distance shooter drilling a pair of 3-pointers in the Heat’s 97-90 victory over the Hornets.
Wade’s intense but light-hearted response to the heckler came during his barrage of jumpers that started with the Heat’s all-time leading scorer knocking down his first 3-pointer of the calendar year to put Miami ahead 90-81 with three minutes left in the game. He nailed another with 1:01 left that forced the Hornets to call a timeout and sent Wade on a celebratory loop around the court to first respond to the heckler, then to slap hands with friend and NFL defensive end Julius Peppers and also to acknowledge recent Hall of Fame inductee Allen Iverson, who was seated in the second row.
By the time Wade got back to the Heat’s huddle, the 20-second timeout was almost over. For days, Wade and his teammates have talked about how difficult and challenging this series would be and how deep the Heat would have to dig to give themselves a chance to extend their season.
The Heat didn't have to sweat this hard in the first round during Wade’s previous ventures into the postseason alongside LeBron James on teams that advanced to the NBA Finals four straight seasons and won consecutive titles in 2012 and 2013. Wade was just entering his dominant prime during Miami’s first championship run in 2006, when Shaquille O’Neal anchored the middle.
But with those megastar teammates long gone and the Heat back in the playoffs after slipping into the lottery last season, these are moments Wade savors more than ever this time around. The Heat’s current rotation has three players who have never been to the postseason, including two rookies, and three journeymen who will be free agents at the end of the season.
“I trust my teammates and I love them, but if we were going to lose, I was going out shooting it,” said Wade, who was 10-of-20 from the field and had 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals in 37 minutes. “At this point in my career, I play for these moments. ... It’s what makes you feel alive.”
Those moments also made Wade feel sentimental heading into Game 7. He spoke of the physical and mental grind of being 13 years into his career and not knowing how many more chances he’ll get to advance in the playoffs. Wade didn’t lead his teammates as much as he guided them Friday.
He set an aggressive, attacking tone early that allowed Luol Deng to enjoy another hot start and score 11 of his 21 points in the first quarter. Wade’s defensive energy was also contagious in the second quarter, when Hassan Whiteside rejected three shots on a night when the Heat finished with 10 blocks. The third quarter saw struggling point guard Goran Dragic emerge from a series-long funk to score eight of his 14 points to keep the Heat ahead in the game and set up Wade’s closing moments in the fourth.
“I’ve seen Dwyane enough over the years that it just becomes winning plays, whatever those may be,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked about Wade’s surprising 3-point attempts. “It’s born out of great competition. It brings the absolute best out of him. He works on [3-point shots] all the time. He just never shoots it [in games]. But when it’s needed most ... ”
Spoelstra’s train of thought trailed off.
But Wade’s teammates were also stunned when they saw him line up and launch from beyond the arc.
“I was shocked because he doesn’t shoot that many 3s,” said Heat rookie guard Josh Richardson, who wasn’t in the rotation when Wade last made a 3-pointer in a Dec. 16 victory against Brooklyn. “So when he shot it, I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ And then he made it and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ At that point with Dwyane Wade at the end of the game, you can’t really be surprised by anything.”
Wade was driven by more than anything a heckler could say. In fact, that courtside exchange was one of many motivating factors that fueled his determination to force Game 7. It didn’t escape Wade's notice that he was playing in front of five Hall of Famers in Iverson, Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Alonzo Mourning. Wade also spoke of a late workout with teammate Dorell Wright on Thursday night, when they focused specifically on shooting tens of dozens of shots from 3-point range. During the regular season, Wade was 7-for-44 from downtown.
Wade also wanted a magical Game 6 episode of his own. After the Heat fell behind 3-2 following Wednesday’s 90-88 home loss to Charlotte, Wade made reference to how LeBron lifted the Heat out of a similar hole in 2012, when he scored 45 points to lead Miami to a win at Boston in the Eastern Conference finals on the way to a championship.
This could be a pivotal moment for the Heat, who held a 2-0 series lead before losing three straight games to the Hornets. After the Heat’s morning shootaround Friday, Wade and fellow co-captain Udonis Haslem met and had an emotional discussion about where the series stood.
“It was just about thinking about the moment we’re in now and how much it meant to us,” said Haslem, who is playing on a torn plantar fascia. “Everybody brought a mentality of, ‘not tonight.’ I told the guys that if we’re going to lose this game, all 15 of us would have to get rolled out of here on stretchers. We’re going to lay it on the line and they’re going to have to wheel us out of here tonight.”
So there was the heckler, the Hall of Fame audience, the meeting with Haslem, the prospect of elimination in Game 6 and the late-night workout that pushed Wade to desperation.
And then there was this:
“Remember that game against Charlotte back in March?” Wade said to ESPN.com.
That was the March 17 loss in Miami, when Spoelstra was questioned and criticized afterward for drawing up a play in the final seconds for Wade to take a 3-pointer that would have forced overtime.
Wade missed from the right wing, and the Heat lost 109-106 to the Hornets.
“When I shot that three at the end and everybody said I shouldn’t have been the one shooting it,” Wade continued. “You remember that? I do. Everyone thinks I can’t shoot it. I thought about that.”
Wade is thinking about Game 7 now.
The outcome might not finish on his terms again, but it’ll certainly end on his turf.