The public perception of Chris Bosh has undergone a pretty amazing evolution during this postseason — from inexhaustible punchline to irreplaceable piece to irrelevant postscript. And now, perhaps, to savior.
After spending three weeks on the sideline working his way back from a strained abdominal muscle, the Miami Heat are reportedly looking to return Bosh to the fold for a pivotal Game 5 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night. From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
According to multiple sources, the Heat are hoping to activate Chris Bosh for Tuesday's Game 5 if he doesn't suffer a setback in workouts over the next two days. Bosh declined to discuss his status following the Heat's 93-91 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, which tied the series at 2-2.
Bosh has missed three weeks and nine playoff games since going down with an abdominal strain in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. The Heat have not put an official timetable on his return but it is believed they were targeting a three-week window for a return if he didn't have setbacks in his rehab.
It's been quite a couple of months for Bosh, who went from being the butt of "soft" jokes to being viewed as an indispensable third option and offensive linchpin when Miami struggled after an inopportune movement during Game 1 against the Pacers led to his indefinite shelving. Then, after LeBron James had a game for the ages and Dwyane Wade got his groove back, Bosh once again became an afterthought, his rehab from the muscle strain a footnote to the two-man power trip ripping and running through the East.
Now, after two straight losses have evened the Eastern Conference finals, Miami finds itself looking at Bosh as the cavalry, the lone untapped option on its roster who may be able to combat a hellacious version of Kevin Garnett, who's dominating the interior en route to 20.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and just under two blocks per game through four contests. If Bosh is healthy enough after three weeks on the shelf to be able to even approximate, if not fully equal, his pre-injury effectiveness — a really, really big question, because muscle strains are notoriously difficult to evaluate, gauge and play through — he could be a huge boost for a Miami team that has struggled mightily to find reliable center play since he went down.
The search for answers in the middle without Bosh have led Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to some strange places. Against Indiana, he dusted off little-used Dexter Pittman, who was allowed to tread the floorboards for six minutes and 41 seconds ... just long enough to get thoroughly dominated by Roy Hibbert in the opening moments of Game 3, return to the bench for two games, and come back to elbow Lance Stephenson in the throat. Pittman has seen just 56 seconds of court time against the Celtics since coming back from his three-game suspension; barring another injury, he's unlikely to see much, if any, more.
Miami's big men have struggled since Bosh went down. (Getty Images)Necessity has also borne the invention of a smaller lineup that sees James play the five-spot alongside Wade, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Shane Battier, a previously unused configuration that helped the Heat claw back into Game 3 while Garnett was on the bench and was effective in closing a big gap in the first quarter of Game 4. Given the success he's had with it over the past two games, Spoelstra will likely continue to feature such small-ball lineups when Garnett's out, but considering KG's averaging 38.2 minutes per game this series, the coach will still have to find some other answers, too. He hasn't found many yet.
Since Bosh went out, Spoelstra has primarily turned to Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem to replace him in the middle. Add up their stat lines and they look like one pretty sound center — 13.5 points, 13 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game in the nine contests since Bosh's injury — but when you pop the hood on their play, things don't seem so swell.
In the nine games since Bosh's injury, here's how the replacement pivots have stacked up (thanks to NBA.com's fantastic stats tool for the treasure trove of information):
• Turiaf: The 6-foot-10 Frenchman has started seven of the nine games but has played the fewest minutes of the three replacement options, largely because the Heat really struggle to produce consistent offense with him on the floor.
Miami's field-goal percentage has stayed sound (46.8 percent from the floor with him on it, 46.5 percent with him off it), but the rest of the team's offensive numbers have dipped precipitously with Turiaf on the court over the past nine games. Because he can only be a scoring threat near the basket, offers no pressure-release in the midrange game and allows defenders to effectively ignore him and stay at home on Miami's other, more dangerous options, the Heat's offense really stagnates when he's around, resulting in fewer easy points and more bad bailout shots.
The Heat are attempting about three more 3-pointers per 48 minutes with Turiaf on the court over the past nine games than when he's off it, making just 26.2 percent of their tries, down from (a still-not-very-good) 31.8 percent when he's on the bench. They've also drawn far fewer fouls and gotten to the line less frequently, attempting 27.6 free throws per-48 when he's on the bench and just 19.7 per-48 when he's playing. As a result, Miami's scoring has gone in the tank, from 95.1 points per 48 non-Turiaf minutes to just 87.7-per-48 when he's out there.
The numbers are even more stark when you move from per-minute stats to per-possession ones. When Turiaf has sat during these nine non-Bosh contests, Miami has scored an average of 107.9 points per 100 possessions, an offensive efficiency mark trailing only the stellar Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs for top honors this postseason. When he has played, they have scored just 93.9 points per 100 possessions, roughly equivalent to the output of the rudderless, overwhelmed offense the Utah Jazz featured in their four-game sweep at San Antonio's hands. So while he's helped key an exceptionally stalwart defensive unit — Miami's giving up just 91.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court over the last nine games, which is stellar — he's still been a major liability.
Kevin Garnett has largely had his way with Miami bigs like Udonis Haslem. (Getty Images)• Haslem: When Bosh went out, the longest-tenured member of the Heat not named Dwyane was expected to have to play a major role in replacing his production. The bet was that the Heat would use Haslem's ability to knock down midrange jumpers as a pick-and-pop partner for James and Wade to allow the Heat to continue to stretch defenses, open driving lanes for Miami's wings and allow Miami's offense to continue operating in roughly the same capacity as it did with Bosh manning the middle.
That prediction didn't look so hot through three games against Indiana, as Haslem went just 2 for 11 from the floor and 1 for 6 from between 10 and 23 feet out, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, but the nine-year veteran bounced back in Games 4 and 5 against the Pacers, hitting 10 of 12 shots and canning several midrange jumpers to help give the Miami offense some more shape and variety.
All told, the Heat have scored much more effectively with Haslem on the floor (96.2 points per 48 minutes, 106.1 points per 100 possessions) than when he's resting (92-per-48, 103.8-per-100) over the last nine games. The problem's been on the other end of the floor, where Haslem has struggled against talented frontlines keyed by Hibbert, David West, Garnett and Brandon Bass.
When Haslem has taken a seat over the past nine games, Miami has given up just 86.2 points per 48 minutes of floor time and just 95.8 points per 100 possessions, a defensive efficiency mark that would lead all playoff teams, according to advanced stats site NBAstuffer.com. When he's played, they've given up 95.6-per-48 and 106.3-per-100, a monstrous swing that — like the huge differential between the sensational defense and putrid offense with Turiaf — actually means the Heat as a unit have performed better with Haslem off the floor than with him on it, despite his strong contributions in one area.
• Anthony: Though he's only received one start during the nine-game stretch without Bosh, the shot-blocking pride of Montreal has seen more floor time (23.9 minutes per game) than both Turiaf (12.2) and Haslem (19.8) ... but he hasn't been such great shakes.
Miami's been outscored by 3.4 points per 48 minutes with Anthony on the floor over the past nine games, and has really turned it on when he's on the bench, outpacing opponents by a whopping 10.8 points per 48 minutes. They don't rebound as well when the 6-foot-9 Anthony is on the court, they crank with their uptempo game when he's on the bench (18 fast-break points per 48 when he's out, just eight-per-48 when he's in). Despite his own offensive limitations, the team has scored more efficiently with him on the court (105.9 points per 100 possessions) than off it (103.6-per-100), but despite his defensive prowess, the Heat have fared significantly better when he's sat, allowing 94.2 points per 100 possessions with him out over the last nine games compared to 105.3-per-100 when he's playing.
All told, Miami's been about 10 points per 100 possessions better in the 227 minutes Anthony has sat than the 215 minutes he's played — again, a huge, huge difference.
One big reason for the replacement centers' struggles is pretty easy to grasp — none of them are that big, and they've been playing primarily against very tall and very talented big men in Hibbert and Garnett. ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh underlines that reality with this eye-popping stat (emphasis mine):
Ever since Bosh has been in street clothes, the Heat have been outscored by 7.4 points every 48 minutes with the opposing elite 7-footer on the floor. But when they go to the bench, the Heat feast like starving vultures. With Hibbert and Garnett of the floor, the Heat are blowing out the competition by an average of 33.2 points every 48 minutes.
Now, no one is going to confuse Bosh with a lockdown defender capable of shutting Garnett down when he catches with deep post position or an offensive virtuoso who's going to dominate KG on the other end of the court to totally change the polarity of the series. We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention that Bosh struggled mightily when matched with KG last regular season, last postseason and this regular season. Even at 100 percent, it's unlikely that Chris Bosh would straight-up win this matchup, and it's unlikely he'll actually be 100 percent.
But if he can slow Garnett a bit on both ends of the floor, use the threat of his jumper to create a bit more space for Wade to enter the lane and operate on offense and provide a more skilled finishing option than the three guys who've taken his place, he could be a huge stabilizing agent for a team that seems to be searching for itself just about every night these days. And, as the numbers show, it's not exactly like the Heat's big men couldn't use some help.