SAN ANTONIO -- Desperate and facing elimination in the NBA Finals, LeBron James gathered his teammates together before Game 5 Sunday and passionately told them to follow his lead.
But the Heat's season ended abruptly and painfully because Dwyane Wade was never able to fall in line.
The gap between what James needed and what Wade and the Heat's supporting cast were able to provide proved in this series to be as wide as the distance between the Riverwalk and South Beach. Wade continued to insist after Sunday's 104-87 series-clinching loss to the Spurs that his lethargic play in the Finals wasn't the result of an injury or setback in his long-standing recovery from knee issues.
Wade hobbled through another rough outing to finish with just 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting and three turnovers in 36 minutes. That performance came a game after Wade missed nine of his first 10 shots and finished 3-of-13 from the field for just 10 points in a 21-point loss to the Spurs in Game 4.
The problems for Wade extended beyond his offense, with his defensive struggles singled out in an 11-minute YouTube video that went viral in the days leading up to Game 5. Wade's play largely left James and the Heat in a dilemma against the Spurs.
The pride of one of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history wouldn't allow him to admit that his body was obviously failing him against the Spurs. But his sheer presence failed to provide the boost James needed to help counter a Spurs team that exploited every mistake and effort lapse in the series.
"I just struggled a little bit," Wade said dismissively. "As I told you guys, I'm never going to point at anything physically. I felt fine. I just struggled a little bit offensively. You know, I wish I could have done more, but it's the nature of the game. So [it's] nothing physically at all."
That answer was an example of Wade trying to do the noble thing, the right thing. He wants to give the Spurs their due respect for the way they defended and dominated the series and knocked him off his rhythm. But the truth is San Antonio never really had to shift much of its focus to containing Wade, who averaged 15.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the series. He shot just 43.8 percent from the field, which culminated in the least productive series of Wade's five trips to the Finals.
This wasn't the Wade the Heat needed or expected, especially coming off a stellar series in the conference finals against the Indiana Pacers. Two weeks ago, Wade responded to taunting and wisecracks from Indiana guard Lance Stephenson about his knee potentially flaring up by putting up 19.8 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting to put away the Pacers in six games.
But the reliable and seemingly rejuvenated Wade, who helped James torch the Pacers a series ago, was the source of much of the torture the Heat endured against the Spurs. There had to be a reasonable explanation, beyond the Spurs' impeccable play, for why Wade, 32, was a few steps slow defensively, was unable to finish at the rim offensively and seemed disinterested in lateral movement on both ends.