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By the time the 2013 NBA Finals began last week, it was clear that the Heat's once-chesty plan to be the next hoops dynasty had gone startlingly fragile. Did you see it? Where once there had been a Vegas-style unveiling of the Big Three and LeBron James's prediction of "not four ... not five ... not six ..." championships, where once—just this spring, no?—there had been a historic 27-game winning streak, all grandiosity had been put on pause. Now there was uncertainty. Now there was a question of how long the trio might last. Now there were just three desperate words.
Whatever it takes.
Did you hear it? In practice and pressroom last week a phrase tossed off down the season's stretch run had evolved into verbal tic, repeated so compulsively by coach Erik Spoelstra that local scribes had taken to parroting it in their copy and players wove it into nearly every utterance. LeBron, will you take over, score more, guard Tony Parker all game? Whatever it takes. Spo, will Chris Bosh attack the paint more, Shane Battier play more minutes? Whatever it takes. Cream in that coffee, Mr. Haslem? Whatever it takes.
So maybe that's why no one blinked the first time Dwyane Wade's mother begged God to heal his right knee. Ever since he suffered a deep bone bruise against Orlando on March 6, the 31-year-old Wade has played with the kneecap shifted and taped, and at least three times he has experienced searing pain after rebruising it during play. His scoring average has plummeted. At times he seems to be aging before your eyes. Rest is the only cure, but he can't rest. Because not even the great James can win it alone. Because even in limited doses Wade's energy—what team president Pat Riley once described as "attack, attack, attack"—has been the fuel that makes the Heat run.
"You don't win big unless your horses bring it in June," Battier says. "A lot of times role players step up and do something unexpected to put you over the top, but you need your horses to get you there."
Last month, after Miami had beaten the Bulls in Wade's hometown of Chicago to go up 3--1 in their second-round playoff series, he hobbled into the postgame crush of family and friends at the United Center. His knee had collided with the Bulls' Jimmy Butler during the second quarter, leaving Wade crumpled on the sideline, and retaping it didn't help much. He finished with six points, hit just three field goals. His mother was in mid-sentence with someone else when she heard him yell.
"Ma!" Wade said. "Come and touch my knee and pray on it."
Jolinda Wade—58 years old, a former drug addict who lost her family, went to prison, reformed and is now a minister—walked over to her son, bent down and placed her hand on a knee. She rubbed it and asked for it to be healed. She didn't think she did a very good job. In truth, Jolinda was surprised Dwyane had even asked. "He had never done that openly, loud, in front of everybody before," she says.
But by then, of course, Wade had become the embodiment of Whatever it takes. Since his injury he has endured "countless hours of treatment and whatever you can do to just prepare for one game," James said. "I can feel for him, but I can't really understand what he's going through. You appreciate when someone puts their body on the line each and every night when they're not even close to 100 percent." Yet Wade still never knows how he'll respond. There are games when he has walked onto the court feeling, "Oh, yeah, this is my night," Wade said last Friday. "I got out there, and it was, Oh, no, it's not." For three months now his health hasn't been judged day-to-day. It's quarter-to-quarter.
Still, there has been room for one small miracle. Jolinda gave it one more shot: She and Dwyane's older sister Tragil traveled from Chicago to Indianapolis for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, where Wade was benched for most of the fourth quarter and extended his streak of sub-20-point games to 12—the worst such string in his 10-year career. This time Jolinda called Dwyane over, and the two sat in the emptying seats at Indiana's Bankers Life Fieldhouse. She reached over and felt heat rising off his right knee.