Dwyane wade sat by his locker, his head hanging near his knees as he glared at the carpet between his feet. Charged with leading the Miami Heat in the absence of the injured Shaquille O'Neal, Wade had played a dismal first half against the Washington Wizards in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, committing six turnovers that had contributed to a 51-49 deficit. He was so livid with his performance that he couldn't even look at his teammates, at least not until he had reviewed his errors and resolved how he would correct them. One by one, his teammates drew near to whisper encouragement and remind their 23-year-old guard that the burden of covering for Shaq-who was out with a deep right thigh bruise-was not his to bear alone. "It wasn't just one or two guys," Wade recalls. "It was everybody."
With that equivalent of a group hug, the Heat showed how much it respects Wade for everything that he is not. He doesn't slam doors or kick watercoolers. He doesn't blame others when things are going badly. He doesn't claim all the glory when the team is doing well. Says Miami president Pat Riley, "He is not one of these dummies, one of these idiots, who come into the game a lot these days and [say], 'It's all about me!'"
Wade's idea of leadership is to do all he can on the court and say little about it. But while he may be self-effacing, his play is hardly quiet. With 31 points in Game 3 (19 in the second half) and 42 in Game 4, he carried the Heat to a sweep of the Wizards that ran Miami's playoff record to 8-0. "I would definitely put [his play in those two games] among the top five playoff performances I've seen in my career," says Heat backup center Alonzo Mourning, a 13-year veteran.
If the Detroit Pistons once figured that their primary obstacle to returning to the NBA Finals would be the 7'1", 325-pound O'Neal, they've since widened their focus to include a 6'4", 212-pound dynamo who came into the series leading Miami in postseason assists (8.4 per game) while hitting 52.2% of his shots. In Game 1 of the Eastern finals on Monday night, the Pistons prevented Wade from getting out on the break, cut off his lanes to the basket and hurried his jumpers to seize a 90-81 road win. Wade hit only seven of 25 shots and finished with 16 points. "He'll come back strong," said Heat coach Stan Van Gundy afterward. "It's his trademark to make adjustments-he's done it every series."
Regardless of how far Miami goes-which will depend in no small part on O'Neal's health-Wade has already leaped Beamonesquely over the expectations the team had when it drafted him out of Marquette with the No. 5 pick in 2003. He lifted his scoring average from 16.2 points last season to 24.1 this season to 28.6 through the first two rounds of these playoffs. Riley never imagined that he'd be likening Wade to a young Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, comparisons that he now routinely tosses out. He hints that he might even have been willing to give up Wade in last July's blockbuster trade that sent Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Shaq. "I'm not saying [a request to include Wade] would have been a deal-breaker," says Riley. "But we didn't have to, and we're very fortunate."
As recently as last summer Wade was regarded as a spectacular athlete who could get to the rim at will but couldn't knock down a 20-foot jumper to win a $5 bet. Doing spot-up shooting duty on the U.S. Olympic team, he sank just 21 of 55 shots; he returned home with a bronze medal to hear Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas say that Wade had "proved he couldn't shoot." Says Wade, "I didn't say anything about it, but it lit a fire under me." In eight games against Washington this season, Wade averaged 26.5 points while shooting 53.6%.
Before his rookie season Wade simulated 500 pick-and-roll situations a day in preparation for shifting from off-guard to the point. After his return from Athens and throughout this season, he has devoted extra practice sessions to honing his shooting balance and smoothing out his release with assistant Erik Spoelstra. For all his improvements in the finer points of basketball-Wade joined Allen Iverson and LeBron James as the only players in the top 10 in both scoring and assists-Wade's athleticism is the primary reason his jersey sales were tops in the NBA last week. His explosive first step and jumping ability, combined with a better-than-advertised handle, have turned him into a tougher version of Vince Carter. "It's his quickness, but it's also how powerful he is," says Washington forward Jared Jeffries. "A lot of guards, you hit them and they bounce the other way, but he takes a hit and goes where he wants."
Wade ranked fourth in the NBA this season with 581 free throws (a team record), though that achievement was not without risk: He got flattened a half-dozen times a game. "I know how to fall and get right back up because I've been doing it since I was a kid," says Wade, who missed four games because of ankle, back and rib injuries this season. "It's kind of like there's an art to it. I will need to stop hitting the floor as I get older, but right now while I've got my legs and my toughness, I'm going to go in there and mix it up. Why waste it?"
Against Detroit he is putting himself at the mercy of huge defenders who give hard fouls, which is all the more reason Miami will need an effective Shaq. The majority of Van Gundy's sets involve O'Neal in the low post, including one of Wade's favorites, 2 Chest, in which he curls off a Shaq screen, catches the ball at the foul line and can then shoot, drive or create for others. The two feed off each other, and more important, respect each other. Wade, whose large brown eyes convey serenity and self-assuredness, is unlikely ever to be a participant in the sort of who's-the-man? feud that tore Shaq and Kobe apart in L.A. "God had a gift for me with the ability he gave me to be able to do things on the court, so when something goes wrong, I put it on myself that I didn't go out there and put the effort forth," he says. "I would never go in the locker room and point my teammates out. I would never say it was their fault."
Wade is religious; last season he donated 10% of his $2.6 million salary to his hometown church in Robbins, Ill., a low-income Chicago suburb. He and his wife, Siohvaughan, and their three-year-old son, Zaire, are looking to join a new congregation in Florida. Wade wears number 3 in testament to the Holy Trinity, but he also credits a less exalted force--Jordan--with inspiring everything from his fadeaway baseline jumper to his old-school demeanor on the court. "Once in a while you would see Michael dunk on somebody, and when he screamed, he wasn't doing it for the crowd," says Wade. "When I do something, it's just my emotion coming out."