Dwyane Wade is the NBA Finals ‘X factor’

OPINION - We need to see vintage Dwyane Wade over these next two weeks. If Wade steps up and plays like the superstar we’re used to, the Heat shouldn't have a problem capturing their second consecutive title...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The 2013 NBA Finals are a dream matchup for hoop fans.

The San Antonio Spurs are the epitome of team basketball. They have star-of-his-generation forward Tim Duncan, and legendary coach Gregg Popovich going for their fifth title — an astonishing 14 years after winning their first title together.

The Miami Heat feature the best player on the planet in LeBron James. The team itself is probably the most famous team in American sports, and anything featuring James is ratings gold for the NBA.

There are two sets of big threes. The long-tenured big three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili against the big three of this era in James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

This series features a whopping four former NBA Finals MVPs in James, Duncan, Parker and Wade. But in these playoffs, only three of those players have actually played like their MVP-caliber selves.

And if the fourth player, Wade, doesn’t play closer to his, the Heat are going to lose this series.

Way of Wade

In 2006, when Wade led the Heat to their first title this decade, he was unstoppable, getting to the paint at will, controlling every aspect of the game, and playing like the best guard in the NBA. In the Heat’s second title run last year, he easily played Robin to James’ Batman, averaging 23 points, five rebounds and four assists in the playoffs.

But something has happened this last decade, as we’ve watched Wade mature from young, dynamic scorer, into a smart, veteran champion…he’s gotten old.

This playoffs we haven’t seen the same Wade. He’s looked two steps too slow and has seemed to have lost all of his explosion. In the Eastern Conference Finals, his and Bosh’s play nearly cost the Heat the series. After averaging 23 points last year, he’s scored 20 points just twice during the entire playoffs, and shot less than 50 percent in his last four games.

Statistics just tell part of the story. Watch Heat games and Wade just doesn’t look himself. He picks his spots way more than he used to, settles for far too many jump shots, and just doesn’t have the same bounce as he once did.

After Game 5 – a game where Wade scored just 10 points – James seemed to take a direct shot at Wade and Bosh by saying:

            “I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days at that point and just said, ‘Hey, let’s try to make more plays and be more of a scoring threat as well.”

Considering James left Cleveland because he didn’t feel he had enough help from teammates, that sure felt like a slight.

LeBron’s ‘Robin’ has struggled

Wade’s poor play seems to have little to do with lack of heart or will. It’s pretty clear he’s hurting, and we won’t know the severity of his injuries until after the playoffs. But even in pain, Wade was able to revert back to the dominant player we’re accustomed to last Monday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He was aggressive and decisive, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds. Those are the types of performance the Heat are going to need against a smart, experienced, deep Spurs team.

He’ll have to perform on both ends too. Last series he was forced to cover Paul George, a 23-year-old budding superstar. This series, he’ll mostly cover Danny Green and Gary Neal – talented role players, but mostly spot-up shooters. That should help him keep his legs and his energy.

James probably won’t start covering Parker, but it’s almost certain that they’ll be stretches where he’ll be matched up against him, in hopes of shutting the speedy guard down. James is most disruptive when playing free safety, able to help on any driving or shooting player in an instant. With James covering Parker, Wade will have to step in and play a similar free safety role.

Wade is the X-factor of this series. And his play may ultimately determine the Heat’s future.

Wade’s performance is Finals key

If the Heat lose this series, there may be major changes coming to South Beach. Keeping James, Wade, and Bosh together will be a luxury tax nightmare under the new collective bargaining agreement. Bosh, who has been even less effective than Wade, may be the sacrificial lamb and traded this offseason if the Heat don’t capture their second ring.

James may look around and see a rebuilt team with a broken down No. 2 in Wade and decide he may want to play elsewhere and opt out of his contract in 2014. Wade himself will be at the negotiating table with Miami soon, and what he asks for versus what he’s now worth may be vastly different.

All of these reasons, along with the main reason — winning a championship — are why we need to see vintage Wade over these next two weeks. This series has the potential to be entertaining, competitive and extremely compelling.

But that’s only if Wade steps up and plays like the superstar we’re used to.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace