Before LeBron James’ foul-out, before Dwyane Wade’s 3-point clang at the buzzer, before the Boston Celtics rose from the near-dead and before the Miami Heat had lost control of the Eastern Conference finals, Erik Spoelstra tried to sell the world on the value of Christopher Wesson Bosh.
“He was our most important player,” Spoelstra said in a pregame news conference Friday, and you could sense the muffled snickers around the room.
Few took the statement seriously, in part because Spoelstra, the Heat’s unfailingly self-serious head coach, is prone to broad platitudes and important-sounding coach-isms, such as, “play to our identity,” a phrase he invokes about 15 times per interview.
Also, and not incidentally, Bosh is universally understood to be the Heat’s third-best player. That is the best title a player can claim when his teammates include LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. So Spoelstra’s remark was widely mocked and quickly forgotten, until Miami lost two straight games, sparking another “What’s wrong with the Heat?” minicrisis.
The answer begins with Bosh, who has missed nine straight games after straining an abdominal muscle. Spoelstra dismissed an ESPN.com report indicating that Bosh could return for Game 5, but the Heat are clearly hoping it is true.
The Celtics, who were supposed to be too old and frail to contend with Miami, have tied the series at 2-2, sending jitters across South Beach. They have done so because Kevin Garnett, while 36 years old, is still a shade below 7 feet tall and has repeatedly taken advantage of the Heat’s undersize and undertalented frontcourt. Garnett had 41 points and 25 rebounds in Boston’s two victories, leading an offense that scored 96 points in the paint, or 48 a game. By comparison, Miami allowed just 42.3 points a game in the paint during the regular season, according to teamrankings.com.
Suddenly, Spoelstra’s assertion about Bosh before Game 3 seems a little less hyperbolic. Miami clearly misses Bosh, as much as any team would miss an All-Star big man with a 7-3 wingspan and a career rebounding average of 9.1 a game. Wade and James are fabulous scorers and playmakers, but they cannot close down the paint.
The Heat have been trying to compensate for Bosh’s absence since May 13, when he was injured in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. The Heat have started three different centers (Ronny Turiaf, Dexter Pittman and Joel Anthony), deployed small lineups when possible and used James to guard power forwards and centers. The Heat struggled to defend Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ 7-2 center, just as they are now struggling with Garnett. They are 5-4 in Bosh’s absence.
How much do the Heat miss Bosh? Quite a bit. According to Tom Haberstroh, a statistical analyst for ESPN.com, during Bosh’s nine-game absence, Miami has been outscored by 7.4 points per 48 minutes when Garnett or Hibbert have been on the court. When Garnett or Hibbert have been on the bench, Miami has outscored its opponent (Indiana or Boston) by 33.2 points per 48 minutes.
Without Bosh, the Heat’s offense has also taken a hit. He was their third-leading scorer this season (18 points a game) and their best interior option.
“Defensively, he’s always been a multiposition anchor for us,” Spoelstra said Monday, while the offense “has changed considerably with him out.”
He added, “And we’re reinventing ourselves on the fly.”
The Heat’s next adjustment, they hope, will be to reincorporate Bosh, if not Tuesday then soon after. Bosh has made “significant progress” over the past week, according to Spoelstra, who is now calling him “day to day” — an improvement from “out indefinitely.”
Spoelstra would not rule out Bosh’s return for Game 5, but said, “It’s premature to say that he’ll definitively play.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Bosh’s return would not change his team’s offensive strategy — Boston will keep throwing the ball to Garnett in the post — but could affect the results. And Bosh’s shooting skills will make it tougher for the Celtics to double-team Wade, whom they have largely contained so far.
“Because all the trapping we’re doing is more difficult when Bosh is on the floor,” Rivers said, adding, “I mean, that’s his value offensively, is he’s a great shooter.”
Assuming Bosh can play like Bosh, his return could tip the series and establish once and for all that the Heat are not a two-man show. In the two years since Miami created its Big Three, Bosh has been either overvalued (because he was always lumped with Wade and James) or undersold as an ancillary part. If these were the “Heatles,” then Bosh was Ringo Starr.
In raw skills, Bosh is obviously not as valuable as Wade and James, who are equally effective as playmakers and scorers. But NBA titles are rarely won without capable big men, and Bosh’s value as a scorer, rebounder and defender are indisputable and essential. By now, that should be evident enough.
Every Miami loss incites another debate about wisdom of the James-Wade-Bosh partnership and renews speculation about a possible breakup. Yet if the Heat do lose this series, it will not be proof of a flawed model. Under the circumstances, it would be a testament to its wisdom.