Miami’s Chris Bosh is likely to return from an abdominal strain for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, according to ESPN.com, and it’s refreshing that we appear to be past the point of asking whether the Heat are better off with or without their best big man. Trends ebb and flow with each game, depending on matchups, randomness and coaching adjustments, but in the big picture, the truth has always been obvious: The Heat are much better with all three of their stars on the court, and they will need Bosh to seriously compete against the Oklahoma City/San Antonio winner, let alone escape a proud and ferocious Boston team that evened the series at 2-2 on Sunday in Boston.
The Heat’s need for another quality big man is all-encompassing at this point. They need the threat of Bosh’s offense so that Kevin Garnett cannot rove anywhere he pleases to double-team Miami’s other stars or clog the lane on the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade pick-and-rolls that the team ran so often — more than I can ever remember in a single game — in Game 4. They could use another scorer, period, after having wiped out a huge chunk of their play book and replaced it with isolations during Bosh’s absence. They need more flexibility to play two big men against a depleted Boston team thrilled it can go small, and they need a big man to help clean up their suddenly broken defense.
Step back from the “clutch” debate and Miami’s shaky last-second possessions on Sunday, and you’ll see that the larger question emerging in this series surrounds Miami’s disturbing regression on defense. We can say Boston’s explosion in Game 2 was the product of a random jump-shooting outburst from Rajon Rondo, who just completed what may have been the best three-game stretch of his career in lifting Boston back into this series. But in the first six quarters of Games 3 and 4 in Boston, the Heat played some of their worst defense of the past two seasons. Boston deserves credit for working its side-to-side sets, limiting turnovers (a half-decade-old bugaboo for these Celtics) and finding creative ways to get Garnett the ball in the post during Game 3. But there were also simple breakdowns from Miami — startling mistakes of miscommunication, laziness, confusion and botched rotations so bad we have no choice but to wonder if fatigue is starting to set in among Miami’s stars.
The Heat reversed that trend in the second half of Game 4, cleaning up rotations and showing a new sense of urgency in flying around the court. Yet their furious second-half rally, undone by some inefficient late-game offense, would not have been necessary had they not helped one of the league’s worst scoring teams pile up 61 first-half points.
That half followed a Game 3 in which Boston scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions, a number no team has touched over the course of a full season (the league average in 2011-2012 was 101.9 points per 100). The tape of those six quarters is littered with stunningly bad Miami mistakes. The Heat have blown multiple Rondo/Paul Pierce pick-and-rolls, mostly because the two men defending the play — usually James and a point guard — have seemed out of synch about how to handle it. Ray Allen nailed three long jumpers as a direct result of bizarre Miami miscommunications. The first involved James Jones and Udonis Haslem rotating together to Garnett on the block, leaving the league’s all-time three-point leader wide open on the right wing. The second came on an emergency Allen/Brandon Bass pick-and-roll late in the shot clock, when James and Haslem were confused about which one of them should jump out on Allen. Neither did, and Allen nailed a foot-on-the-line two.
This was a carryover from Game 3, when Miami’s communication was just completely off. Players seemed constantly confused, with one assuming a switch had been permanent, while the other assumed it had been temporary or chose not to commit to the switch completely. That kind of inaction and paralysis can be fatal, and it resulted in multiple open looks and offensive rebounds for Boston in both games. The Celtics, the worst offensive rebounding team in league history, have rebounded an above-average percentage of their own misses over the last two games, due in part to Miami’s poor positioning and constant confusion on defense.
The Heat’s help rotations in Game 3 were late. James, in particular, was caught ball-watching or hesitating on the weak side when Miami’s scheme demanded precision. Players were literally bumping into each other, taking themselves out of plays as Miami looked uncertain as to how to defend smaller Boston lineups that can space the floor better. The Finals turned for Dallas midway through last season for lots of reasons, but the turn felt complete when the Mavericks began to break Miami’s vaunted defense. The Mavs were sure they could exhaust James by running him around screens and eventually poke holes in the Heat defense, and once they did, they never lost again. The first six quarters of the Heat’s trip to Boston over the weekend had that same feel: Miami’s half-court offense will always go through some shaky quarters, but the defense usually remains constant. When that changes, the Heat are in trouble.
Bosh — who has missed the last nine games — isn’t an elite defender, but he’s a very good one, and he brings lineup flexibility that the Heat need desperately. With him out, the Heat have been playing small constantly, and Boston has outscored them badly while playing Garnett with four wings and guards. The Celtics are minus-6 for the series but plus-27 (in 75 minutes) with that lineup on the floor, per NBA.com’s stats database.
Boston may still play that way even if Miami re-commits to using the Bosh/Joel Anthony combination for heavy minutes, since Garnett could defend Bosh while the Celtics “hide” a perimeter player on the punchless Anthony. But that’s not a risk-free proposition for Boston because Anthony is such a good pick-and-roll screener for James and Wade. At the very least, the return of Bosh could mean an extra minute or two of rest for Wade, James and Shane Battier, and every such minute counts, given that James and Wade have had to do just about everything on offense without Bosh.
Ah, offense. It hasn’t been a huge problem for Miami without Bosh, but it was in Boston, where the Heat averaged a Bobcats-like 95.1 points per 100 possessions in their two losses. James and Wade have steadily improved at playing off each other and cutting off the ball, and so while the Heat’s offense can still go through periods of stagnancy in the half-court, those stretches aren’t as ugly, isolation-heavy or inefficient as they were last season. But far too often they lead to hastily taken pull-up jumpers (see Miami’s first two misses in overtime on Sunday), and even Miami’s bread-and-butter stuff is much more defensible without Bosh.
The Celtics blew up three James/Wade pick-and-rolls in crunch time — one with about three minutes left in regulation and two others in overtime — because Garnett felt comfortable abandoning Haslem to help on James’ rolls to the rim or trap James on post-ups — plays on the block that would have otherwise been effective because the James/Wade pick-and-roll so often forced Boston into unfavorable switches. James rushed one baseline-area floater with about 2:15 to go in overtime precisely because he knew Garnett was lurking in the paint to challenge the shot.
Say what you want about LeBron’s tendency to pass in the clutch, but the anti-James shouters will probably miss the fact that on Miami’s final possession of regulation, when James isolated against Mickael Pietrus on the left side of the floor, Garnett slid off Haslem immediately to plant himself at the left elbow, effectively denying LeBron the paint. This kind of overloading is less available if Bosh is in the game instead of Haslem, Battier or Mario Chalmers.
(As an aside: I once again found James’ crunch-time performance almost impossible to parse with any simplified generalization, and this is after re-watching every late Miami possession several times. Over the game’s final eight minutes, James had moments of obvious tentativeness, inspired passing and willing aggression. His record, both in the big picture and the small picture, is spotty, and we should be willing to embrace that kind of complexity.)
And remember those cross screens Miami loves to run under the rim, where James or Wade takes a pick along the baseline from a big man, darts across the paint and posts up on the opposite block? Boston is neutering those plays by simply ignoring the screener and double-teaming the Miami star target until he is forced to take his post-up far from the paint. You can’t do that when Bosh is setting those picks.
Bottom line: Of course Miami needs Bosh. But his presence won’t make much of a difference if Miami can’t clean up its defense — and not just for one half.