It was the last time Dwyane Wade considered himself just a basketball player.
This was before the GQ Magazine photo shoots, before a “W” replaced the “D” in the Dade County, before he became known as D-Wade.
Wade at the time was just someone with an obscure spelling for his first name, a rookie playing in his second playoffs series with the Miami Heat. Little did he know it would spawn all the above accolades when in 2004 he helped an up-and-coming Heat team put a scare into the top-seeded Indiana Pacers.
The roles are reversed for the teams, but Wade once again meets the Pacers on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and could not help but reminisce of where it all began.
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“It was no expectations then,” Wade said. “The Pacers were a team at the time competing for a championship. For us, we got out of the first round. It was just about trying to make some noise, trying to make a name for ourselves. Really, it was the last time I had no expectations as a player. It was fun, I enjoyed it.”
The Pacers won the series 4-2, but not before Wade introduced himself to the league.
In actuality, Wade arrived a week before. He took it to another level when the spotlight shined the brightest. The Heat that year in the first round played the New Orleans Hornets. In Game 1, Wade caught the eye of coach Erik Spoelstra, at the time one of Stan Van Gundy’s assistants.
“He probably changed after the New Orleans win,” Spoelstra said. “It was a big moment. Rookie. The first time that Stan had put the ball in his hands to make a play.”
With the scored tied at 79, Wade was given the final shot. He drove left on Hornets guard Baron Davis, not the aged and hobbled one the Heat faced this year in the first round against the New York Knicks. Davis had just completed his second All-Star season, and led the league in steals.
Wade drove right, crossed over left and finished the game with a winning floater in the lane.
“When he the game-winner against Baron Davis, he just carried that momentum into the next series with Indiana,” said Udonis Haslem, also in his rookie year. “… He continued to dominate the next series.”
Wade picked the opportune time to make the splash. The Heat the previous year won just 25 games. The next season the signing ofShaquille O’Nealovershadowed everything else.
In the middle of those two extremes was Wade’s coming out party.
“At that time, it was just about whatever we did,” Wade said. “Coming off a 25-win season, it was all positive. After that, the trade happened for Shaq and this has been a different organization ever since. You really look at it as a winning organization, especially after winning a championship. From that standpoint, the Indiana series really being the last year where it was really nothing expected.”
It was then when Wade hit the Pacers with the unexpected.
He had 22 points and seven rebounds in the Heat’s Game 1 loss. He followed that with a 19-point, five-assist effort in Game 2, yet another loss. The series turned when play returned to Miami.
At that point, the Heat turned to Wade.
“I just remember D-Wade playing with confidence,” said Heat forward James Jones, a member of that Pacers team. “That was about the time he was comfortable with the speed of the game. He had started to find out his niche in this league. Coming into it, he was kind of a combo guard and he really started to take control of the Miami Heat team. You could see it in his play. Defensively, he was just everywhere.”
In Game 3, Wade scored 14 of his team-high 25 points in the fourth quarter. The signature moment came with 4:45 left in the game. After Heat forward Lamar Odom drove the lane, he found a cutting Wade down the middle. Wade finished with a one-handed slam in the face of Pacers centerJermaine O’Neal.
“I don’t remember a lot from (the series),” Wade said. “I’ve had a lot in between.”
“I do remember dunking over Jermaine O’neal,” he said with a laugh. “I remember that.”
Wade teased O’Neal about the moment when they became Heat teammates a few years later. It’s become tradition when former dunk victims join the Miami franchise.
“I’ve had a couple teammates here,” Wade said. “I had Christian Laettner here, and I remember dunking on him before and I let him know about it. I had (Erick) Dampier here, and let him know about it.”
Wade led the Heat to two straight victories, tying the series and putting the pressure on the Pacers. It would be the last time Miami threatened to win the series. The Heat lost Game 5 in Indianapolis before falling in Game 6 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Wade averaged 21 points, 5.6 assists and four rebounds in the six games, serving as the beginning of a Hall of Fame career..
“That team (the Pacers) was a 60-something win team that year, I believe,” Wade said. “They had a very good team and I thought we did a great job of pushing them to the brink as much as possible. Obviously, it was one of my favorite all-time series because it was one of my first ones. I think that’s when I made a little name for myself, in that series.”