Still D-Wade, just working harder than ever to stay that way

MIAMI -- As the clock ticked toward midnight, Dwyane Wade's adrenaline was still pumping in midgame form.

In no rush to don clothes, Wade stood barely dressed, baring his basketball soul, long after his teammates, officials and security staff had abandoned the locker room.

And in no hurry to get home for his next round of postgame treatment, the Miami Heat's aging superstar recounted a moment from seemingly a lifetime ago, a time when Wade accomplished unimaginable athletic feats on a routine basis.

The subject shifted to lob dunks. And 20 minutes after his standard postgame media session had ended and the room had mostly emptied, Wade was giddily explaining how the reverse, left-handed dunk he slammed in after catching a half-court pass from Goran Dragic in Monday's win against Indiana took him back.

Waaay back.

"I used to catch them like that all the time," Wade shouted through a laugh, as if trying to convince a group of non-believers. "I caught one like that my first year at Marquette, in my first game back in Chicago against DePaul. Look it up. DePaul didn't even recruit me, and I'm from Chicago. So you know how [good] that felt."

Two weeks shy of his 34th birthday, Wade is turning back the proverbial clock more often these days. Only he doesn't refer to it that way. Instead, he considers it aging gracefully 13 seasons into a career in which he's still producing at an elite level.

Entering Wednesday's game against the New York Knicks (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), Wade is off to his healthiest season since 2009. He has yet to miss a game because of injury for Miami (21-13), which has won three straight and five of its past seven games. Wade's lone absence this season came during a win against Utah on Nov. 12, when he was away from the team to be with his then-hospitalized youngest son.

Over the past two seasons, Wade has missed a combined 48 games: a maintenance program to combat knee soreness sidelined him for most of the 28 he sat out in 2013-14; hamstring strains in both legs were the culprit last season. But after missing the playoffs last season amid a 37-45 finish that also saw Chris Bosh's season end in February for blood clot treatment, Wade credits the extended offseason for giving both veterans additional time to restore their health.

This is already the deepest Wade has played into a season without injury since he started the first 53 games in 2009-10 before he suffered a strained calf -- an encouraging initial return on the investment the Heat made when Wade signed a one-year, $20 million contract last summer. As Wade was preparing to opt out of his previous contract to enter free agency, Heat president Pat Riley suggested during an end-of-season news conference that the Heat's career leading scorer needed to "change the narrative about his body and his injuries" moving forward.

"He always has to answer those questions, and I know those questions are legitimate because they're real," Riley said entering the offseason of Wade, who has missed at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons. "I'd like to have him try to get past that first hurdle mentally and do whatever he has to do to get himself ready to practice and himself to play, each and every night."

Reminded of Riley's comments as he shifted focus toward Wednesday's game against the Knicks, Wade said he "didn't really pay any attention" to those remarks as he entered the offseason, nor did he need executive motivation.

"It's always a question," Wade said of perceptions about his health. "But no one wants it more than me, at the end of the day. I told Pat the same thing. I love playing the game, and I love being healthy playing the game. Last year, I was disappointed I had two hamstring injuries that kind of took me out of a portion of the 20 games I missed because I thought I was making the strides. But this year, I switched a few things up and I'm more about my body and it feels great."

That process started immediately after the Heat's injury-plagued season ended without a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2008. The Heat struggled physically and psychologically in their first season after the departure of LeBron James, who had guided Miami to two titles and four straight trips to the NBA Finals.

"You go through certain things throughout the year. You play through hurting; as long as it's not something you're going to injure yourself more. So I don't have a number [of target games]."
Dwyane Wade

In hindsight, Wade still sees missing the playoffs as more of a blessing than a blemish for a team that relied on several players called up from the D-League.

"Not saying Chris needed to get blood clots to get rest -- not saying that at all," Wade rationalized. "But it seemed like nothing went right for us. Everything happened for a reason. Chris was able to focus on his body. Obviously, I was -- I ain't going to lie to you, I was happy. Once we weren't good enough and knew we weren't going to win a championship, I didn't really care about making it to the first round, just to say we made it. I enjoyed knowing we were going to have a long summer to focus on my body, so it was good for us."

Wade's first decision was a tough one. He switched trainers, ending a 13-year partnership with Chicago-based Tim Grover to instead work with Miami-based Dave Alexander, who also has trained James in the offseason.

The new regimen called for Wade to focus on strengthening his core through a rugged series of resistance training and stretching routines. He lost 10 pounds during the offseason to drop below 220 for the first time in years and reported to training camp without requiring injury rehab or being limited on any level.

The combination of rest, recovery and resilience has led to rejuvenation.

"It's good to see those athletic plays from Dwyane again," Bosh said. "We know what he's capable of."

Analytics experts -- and even some Heat fans -- grow squeamish in moments when Wade hijacks Miami's offense and settles into an isolation mindset. But even stats-driven critics can't ignore that Wade remains among a select few in the NBA with both a 20-plus player efficiency rating and a top-10 ranking in usage rate, metrics that collectively underscore a player's impact on overall team performance.

"These things don't happen by accident," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade, who is averaging 18.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 30 minutes a game. "I've said before, it's three to one. He's putting three hours [of preparation] to one hour of competition. And he was healthy going into the summer, which allowed him to do that for the first time in a long time. Where he transcends everything is his competitive spirit, just to make big plays on both ends."

Wade provided the latest example of what could be argued was his best game of the season. While his age-and-gravity-defying dunk was a defining highlight that even shocked his teammates and coaches, Monday's most underrated accomplishment was the fact Wade has kept himself available for such moments.

Wade has played in both ends of all five of the Heat's back-to-back sets this season after closing with 27 points, a season-high 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and zero turnovers in a season-high 38 minutes in a 103-100 overtime win against Indiana. He also made the driving layup in the final seconds to force overtime, scoring 21 of his points in the second half.

It's more proof that Wade is growing stronger as the season progresses.

"It was very tough," Wade said of parting with Grover and starting a new path in his 13th NBA season. "But at the end of the day, I have to make a lot of tough decisions because it's my life, right? Tim is great. Obviously, he wanted to continue to work with me, but he also saw I wanted to go in this direction. It wasn't easy to have that conversation because he's been in my life since my rookie year. But this is what I needed to do. I needed something a little different. Coming off the last couple of years, my body needed a different focus."

The next focus is to remain available. Wade insists he doesn't have a specific number of games in mind he'd like to play, but 70 seems a realistic target. There were at least three occasions when Wade pushed through ailments this season that threatened to knock him out of the lineup.

He bruised his hip Nov. 28 at home against Brooklyn and played the next night in Memphis. Flu-like symptoms forced Wade out of the starting lineup Friday against Dallas. But after receiving IV treatments in the locker room, Wade entered in the second quarter and finished with 10 points and seven assists in a blowout win.

And the third close call?

"I twisted my ankle the other night and y'all didn't even know it," Wade said. "You go through certain things throughout the year. You play through hurting; as long as it's not something you're going to injure yourself more. So I don't have a number [of target games]. But every day I come in, I come in ready to work."

Even if it takes all night to recuperate.