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Dave George: Heat’s fate still tied to Dwyane Wade

As the national anthem played inside AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday night, a blinding rainstorm soaked all those who arrived a little late to Fan Appreciation Night, soaking clothes and drowning high spirits.

No, it never was easy for the Miami Heat this season, even when it was going good.

A sensational second half, 30-11 if you can believe it, eventually comes to nothing. A last-gasp shot at the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference brings the final record to 41-41, a tiebreaker short of pushing on to some higher level.

“It all feels so off right now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said in the wake of a 110-102 win over Washington that got Miami all the way back to .500 after being 19 games below. “It feels like we could do some damage in that postseason. It feels like we could be playing for a while, but we just weren’t given that opportunity.”

All of this is fairly astonishing, the highs and the lows mixed in with the zero sum of another Chris Bosh health scare, but what really gets my goat is that after all this time, the franchise’s fate could still be all wrapped up in Dwyane Wade.

In the simplest terms, would having Wade in Miami this season have bought the Heat one more victory?

Likewise, would the Chicago Bulls have gotten the paper-thin edge they needed to win that tiebreaker with the Heat if Wade wasn’t on their side?

Doesn’t matter now. Can’t prove either question either way.

For a Miami franchise that supposedly has moved on, however, the 35-year-old shadow of Heat championship teams past continues to complicate matters.

Remember that night in November when Wade came back to Miami for his first NBA game in another team’s uniform? The Bulls won 98-95 but Heat fans were good to their all-time favorite.

Booing was at a minimum and criticism muted even as Wade turned in one of the most uneven performances he ever had here. In the final minute, he still had just 11 points, leaving the offensive leadership to Bulls teammate Jimmy Butler and the playmaking to Rajon Rondo.

Problem is, awkward moment or not, Wade always plays as if AmericanAirlines is his house, and that’s how it turned out that night. With the Bulls up by a bucket and 13 seconds remaining, Wade went to catch an in-bounds pass under pressure from Miami’s Justise Winslow. The ball deflected out of bounds but a whistle came in response to the 12-time All-Star’s dramatic demonstration of being pushed.

Two free throws. Two more points. Too much Dwyane Wade’s aura to overcome.

“I got the vet call on that one,” Wade said. “I appreciate it.”

No big deal, right, at least at the time? The Heat were 2-5 and no real threat to anyone. Chicago, on the other hand, was supposed to make the playoffs, probable even with a decent seeding, an outcome that Miami fans had no choice to accept in the wake of Pat Riley letting Wade walk during free agency last summer and concentrating instead on the signing of Hassan Whiteside.

Now, though, the two teams are so much alike that a 2-1 victory in the season series is all that separates Chicago from Miami in the standings. One lousy game, raising so many questions, and unfairly focusing attention on games that shouldn’t have been lost these last few months rather than the amazing upset wins that the Heat quite rightfully earned.

Spo, of course, concentrates solely on the players he has. It is not his decision which free agents to sign, nor his choice to cling to the wonder of the Big Three era in Miami. Instead, he worked to develop Goran Dragic’s scoring punch, a force seldom used to the fullest when Wade was around, and pushed Whiteside to be a leader, and got NBA-level play from a collection of well-traveled pros and D-League players up and down the Miami bench.

Look at Dion Waiters, the free agent Miami probably never would have signed in late July if Wade were still around. Waiters was often spectacular in clutch situations until a sprained ankle stopped him short with a month to play in the season’s crucial home stretch.

It was great work, as impressive as anything Spo did during the championship years, but the Bulls did just enough to squeeze ahead of Miami and stay there on the final night. The coach spoke of Chicago late Wednesday, though of course not specifically of Wade, who scored 28 points in a December win over the Heat at the United Center.

“We were so different in that second half (of the season),” Spo said. “If we were able to play Chicago at any point later in the season, better than those first two times, then maybe we would have had the tiebreaker there.”

No one can hate Wade for that. The guy never tires of winning, and there surely were times in his long and distinguished. Heat career when losing was forced on him by Riley’s sweeping roster resets.

What a shame, though, that the grittiest team Spoelstra ever coached is suddenly finished, hitting a dead end while the teams that might have helped them in the standings, Brooklyn and Atlanta, were sitting their best stars.

At least Miami competed to the end. That’s worth appreciating rain or shine.

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