Chris Bosh has been called overrated. He’s been labeled soft. He’s been treated like a third wheel to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s high-flying show. Critics even argued that the Heat were better off without him after he missed most of the second and third rounds of the playoffs with an oblique injury. But through three games of the N.B.A. Finals in which the Heat lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-1, Chris Bosh has the been the difference.
For all their offensive fire power, the Miami Heat’s calling card is their suffocating defense. Those breathtaking fast breaks culminating in above-the-rim acrobatics by Wade and James are ignited by missed shots and turnovers on the other end of the floor where they apply relentless pressure on their opponent’s point guards and wing players.
Miami’s first line of defense is on the perimeter, beginning with LeBron, who uses his strength, agility and athleticism to check the opponent’s best play-maker. Mario Chalmers keys in on the primary ball-handler and Wade frustrates the remaining wing player with his quick hands and while wreaking havoc by stepping into the passing lanes. When Chalmers, Wade or James need a breather, the wily veteran Shane Battier fills in. Those fours players form a nearly impenetrable first layer to the Heat’s defense; that is, against just about every team other than the Thunder.
OKC poses a match-up nightmare for coaches. With three of the elite play-makers in the league in the league’s leading scoring Kevin Durant, explosive point guard Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, it’s virtually impossible to keep them out of the lane.
While Miami’s formidable front wall has frustrated OKC, the Thunder’s big three have still managed plenty of forays into the paint. That’s where the Heat’s second layer of defense comes into play. Forwards Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier are excellent help defenders, adept at stepping in and taking a charge, but they aren’t able to block shots in the event that they’re not able to rotate into position quick enough.
In the past, Coach Spoelstra turned to Joel Anthony to protect the rim, but the offensively-challenged forward/center is too much of a liability on the other end of the floor to play significant minutes against a team as defensively sound as the Thunder. With the league’s best shot-blocker, Serge Ibaka, lurking around the rim, the Heat need offensive threats at the four and five spots in order to draw Ibaka out of the paint and free up lanes for James and Wade. So, Spo replaced Anthony in the starting lineup with a three-point shooter in Battier, leaving the shot-blocking duties to Bosh.
Miami’s 6’11” power forward is generally known for his offensive abilities. He can face up in the high post and take a big man off the dribble and his soft lefty jumper is deadly off of pick and pops with Wade and James. His ability to knock down shots from 15-20 feet spreads the floor, creating driving lanes for James and Wade.
On the defensive end of the floor, Bosh has been merely average during his two seasons with Miami. He’s a solid on-the-ball defender, posing problems for offensive players with his size, but his help defense has been lacking at times rarely has he used his long frame and athleticism to intimidate opposing players. Inexplicably, he’s averaged just over one shot per game for his career.
Bosh’s lack of aggression on the defensive end has been particularly perplexing because he’s demonstrated that he can be an imposing force in the paint. He was the most intimidating interior presence on a Gold Medal United States Men’s Basketball Team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that included the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, blocking and altering shots with a vengeance.
Over the four years since Beijing, that Chris Bosh has been conspicuously absent, until this series against the Thunder. He blocked two shots and grabbed 15 rebounds in the Heat’s Game 2 100-96 victory over the Thunder and elevated his game to another level in Game 3, anchoring a defense which limited the dynamic Thunder offense to just 85 points on 43% shooting.
When Kevin Durant tried to take over the game in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Bosh repeatedly stifled the OKC superstar. With Miami up by one halfway through the fourth quarter Durant burst past LeBron positioning himself for a routine floater in the lane, but Bosh stepped up and got a piece of the shot. Nick Collison recovered the ball and he too was blocked by the omnipresent Bosh, resulting in a 24 second violation.
A couple of minutes later Durant blew past LeBron again. Once more, Bosh rotated over and met him in the paint and Durant lost the ball while trying to get off a shot. Then, with a minute remaining in the game and the Thunder trailing by one point, Durant got a step on LeBron once more. Again, Bosh was there to meet him. KD was forced to rush his usually automatic floater and clanked it off the backboard. In such a close game those few critical possessions made the difference.
This series is far from over. OKC is a talented and hungry team. They’re going to come out with a fury tonight. If Miami is going to win the championship they’re going to do it at the defensive end of the floor and that defense needs to be anchored by Chris Bosh.