"There are lots of guys in this league who can get to the rim, but Dwyane has the strength to finish," says Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Plus, Wade already has a deadly step-back jumper, something Michael Jordan didn't develop until late in his career.
Although he usually wears a blank, little-boy-lost look on the court, Wade is a physical player. "He killed us with his toughness," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers after Wade torched Boston for 33 points in a 108--100 win on Dec. 21. Many of Miami's plays begin with Wade coming up from near the basket to set a hard screen on the outside, then bouncing off and getting the ball to initiate the attack. That's how the Utah Jazz offense often ran when John Stockton was at the point, and Stockton garnered a lot of respect because he wasn't afraid to give up his body. Ditto for Wade. "Even if he looks like a kid," says Heat reserve guard Keyon Dooling, who looks like a kid himself, "Flash has got the hard body, the grown-man body."
In keeping with his single-bling style, Wade rarely does a showstopping slam when he's in the open. But he's not averse to putting on a little show when he's in traffic. During a 102--94 defeat of the New York Knicks on Jan. 5, for example, he found his path to the basket blocked, so he threw a deliberate miss against the backboard and got in position for a dunk. (Alas, he missed it.) Another moment from that game better illustrates the kind of player Wade is: He went up high for a pass and, after barely missing a spectacular one-hand slam, retained his concentration, got the rebound and made the follow.
What his teammates appreciate most is that Wade's not a "volume shooter," the NBA euphemism for gunner. ( Bryant and Allen Iverson are two examples of volume shooters.) Through Sunday, Wade was eighth in the league in scoring but 13th in field goals attempted. "He's not out there hunting shots" is the way Jones puts it. Among guards, only Phoenix Suns veteran Steve Nash was shooting with greater accuracy than Wade at week's end (51.3% to 49.4%). Keep in mind, too, that although Wade is by nature aggressive on offense--"He attacks, attacks, attacks," says Minnesota Timberwolves guard Sam Cassell--he rarely takes a bad shot and almost never breaks a play designed for Shaq or Miami's third option, small forward Eddie Jones.
So what the Heat has is a sweet kid with a sweet game. It also has three strong personalities-- Shaq, E. Jones and D. Jones--who allow Wade to stay comfortable in his role as the quiet young star, the object of everyone's affection. "Being a leader is one thing I've never felt comfortable with," says Wade. "Even in high school and college I wasn't the guy firing everyone up. It's not in my nature, and I sure don't have to be outspoken around here."
Indeed, the Heat are cruising along with that rare mix of youth and experience, seriousness and exuberance. They've drawn comparisons with the Alonzo Mourning-- Tim Hardaway-- Jamal Mashburn Miami teams of the late 1990s, but those guys had a hard edge; these guys are more Merry Pranksters. So while Bryant labors at rehabbing his image (there he is explaining himself on ESPN, there he is explaining himself to Larry King), Shaq says, believably, "I've never been happier in my life." Wade's stellar play has kept him from having to kick it into high gear--"That's coming," O'Neal says--but Shaq is on top of his verbal game. When Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas said in the preseason that Wade couldn't shoot and that he was no Bryant, O'Neal responded, "Proven nobodies should not be allowed to make statements about proven somebodies." Wade did his talking on Nov. 6, with 37 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in Miami's 118--106 victory at Washington.
Whenever Shaq isn't available for a quote--and often when he is-- Damon Jones, whom O'Neal calls his best friend in the league, is there. Wearing a T-shirt inscribed with trust me, i'm a virgin, Jones noted last week that Shaq is only the "second-most-charismatic player" in the league because "I'm the first." The great thing about Jones is that he believes it. He has infused the Heat with confidence and fostered camaraderie while, not incidentally, providing a perimeter threat: At week's end he was hitting 41.2% of his threes and scoring 11.2 points a game. Jones and Wade talk hoops all the time; more accurately, Jones talks, Wade listens. Before Miami played the Detroit Pistons for the second time, on Dec. 30 ( Detroit had beaten the Heat 78--77 on Nov. 26), Jones's subject was pace and poise. "They try to make you play at a faster pace than you want to, and we fell into that the first time," said the 28-year-old Jones. "Dwyane listened to what I had to say, and we played our game. [The Heat won 89--78.] You only have to say something to this young man once."
There is still time for the Heat to unravel, of course. Perhaps Shaq, despite having slimmed down to a mere 330 pounds, will suffer the foot and ankle problems that plagued him in L.A. Perhaps Eddie Jones, the player who has sacrificed the most to make room for Wade, will begin to chafe at his lesser role. Perhaps we'll discover that Damon Jones is not really a virgin. But odds are that the Heat will stay hot and Flash will only get flashier. It's a good story, and it's likely to get gooder.