Wade and James: Partners In Ragged Survival

Don’t be duped into believing this is their new manual for survival. Aesthetics be damned, this is how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade roll. The Miami Heat often has been forced to rally in a postseason series during the Decision Era — best defined as LeBron’s unfortunate TV production, followed by his “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven (titles)’’ proclamation — which meant an opening-game loss in the Eastern Conference finals wasn’t nearly as important as how a sleepy James and his defensively challenged teammates responded in Game 2.

They responded by winning, naturally, as they’ve done every time they’ve been inconvenienced since losing the 2011 NBA Finals to Dallas. The Heat’s defining characteristic, as they eye a rare three-peat in basketball and all of sport, is that they’ve never trailed a playoff series by two games. They haven’t because James and Wade refuse to let each other down in a beautiful partnership that didn’t function on an optimum level until Wade, a future Hall of Famer himself, acknowledged that James had to be the alpha dog. Once order was established, they became the Jordan and Pippen of their time, with the tag team on display again during a gnarly football game of a fourth quarter that ended in an urgent 87-83 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

“That’s why they’re the hundred million dollar guys,” teammate Norris Cole said. “They’re unstoppable. They make the game easy for everyone else when they’re in attack mode.”

If the Heat had lost, after an uninspired Game 1 performance, their chances of beating the revived Pacers would have been bleak. They needed to prove they could win a game in Indianapolis, and James, in particular, had to prove he still was motivated to reach “Mt. Rushmore.’’ He’d audaciously predicted months ago that he would climb the highest of basketball heights as one of the four greatest players ever, but to do so, he can’t afford to fall short of a title this season after twice losing in the league finals — and especially after his “… not six, not seven’’ braggadocio upon arriving in South Beach. Just as he’d faded into a passive mode Sunday, James wandered through most of the first three quarters of Game 2 as the Heat slipped into a six-point deficit in a loud, hostile arena that smelled a title takeover attempt.

You know what happened next. Picked up by Wade, who has been brilliant the last three weeks and has benefited from strategic rest for his brittle and aging body, James came alive when it was keenly necessary. A 12-2 run in the fourth quarter was pivotal, with James scoring the first six points and peeling himself off the court after a vicious mid-air tackle and subsequent shove by David West. “He wasn’t in a rhythm through the first 30 minutes of the game, and he just found a way to break free on a couple of cuts, in transition, and that just kind of got him going’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “At this point, it’s just whatever it takes. You have to have great mental stability because there’s going to be possessions where they defend you, they play you well. This is a hotly-contested series, two teams that defend and play physical, and you have to keep on staying with it and staying with it.’’

If not for Wade, America would be asking what the hell’s wrong with LeBron. They combined for 22 of Miami’s 25 points in the fourth. “We believe it doesn’t matter whoever has the ball in each other’s hand, we’re going to make the right play not only for ourselves but for our team,’’ James said. “This was one of those nights once again where we were making plays, finding guys and finding each other, finding a good rhythm with the ball in our hands. We don’t know we’re doing those things, but we just try to do whatever it takes to help out team win.’’

Said Wade, complimenting James verbally on the podium as he had on the court: “That’s what we envisioned, having two guys who are able to be dynamic at the same time. It doesn’t happen all the time, but fourth quarters and those moments, that’s where we envisioned it happened. Obviously, I always know where No. 6 is on the floor, and he always knows where I am on the floor as well. But at the same time, we’re being aggressive, and whatever play comes out of it is probably the best play for our team.’’

It’s remarkable Wade has remained sturdy through a succession of injuries nagging him for years. Credit Spoelstra for keeping him out of certain games throughout the regular season, even if it cost Miami the No. 1 seed in the East. Already, the Heat have nullified Indiana’s home advantage, and it was Wade’s defense on Paul George, who momentarily blacked out after a late collision with Wade, that was vital in evening the series. “It was just about how bad we wanted it,’’ Wade said. “It wasn’t about X’s and O’s. It wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. We kept digging down deep, and we got back to Miami Heat basketball.

“There’s a lot of basketball left. But I feel good.’’

Champions win scrums like this. Pretenders lose them. If it seemed the Pacers generally were in command on this night and should have won, behind the firepower of mouthy but talented Lance Stephenson, the reality is George went 4 of 16 and the Pacers faltered down the stretch. “We were winning the whole night,” guard George Hill said. “We controlled the whole game until the last couple of minutes.” That is when Miami’s defense and effort, porous in Game 1, were supreme.

Not that James is pleased. He isn’t his 48-minute self, and a slip-up at home in Games 3 or 4 jeopardizes the three-peat again. “Even though we won, we’re going to break down the film as if we lost and see ways we can get better even with some of the mistakes that we made,” he said. “We’re not comfortable, and we’re not satisfied at all.”

But they’re not down 0-2, either. Where is it written that a championship run must be easy on the eyes? What’s important is that two legendary partners, ugly as it all was Tuesday night, have announced they’re not finished making history.

Until they fall into their next hole, that is. It’s who they are, what they do.