Chris Bosh predicted his clashes with Indiana center Roy Hibbert, the prototypical 7-2 immovable object, would be pivotal to the fulfillment of the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference championship aspirations.
While the Pacers rely on their bigs, the Heat practices modern small ball, or as Coach Erik Spoelstra likes to call it, positionless basketball.
With the league’s best rebounding team playing against its worst, something had to give, and Game 1 on Wednesday night provided an indication: Size still matters in the NBA, just not as much as it used to.
With Hibbert on the bench, LeBron James snaked to the rim for the winning layup as time expired in overtime. The Heat survived 103-102 to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.
Bosh was critical to the success of the final play. His presence as a threat to step away from the paint and shoot kept Hibbert on the sideline in favor of a mobile defender.
In essence, Bosh made more of a difference as a decoy than as a scorer. That was enough in Game 1 against the underdog Pacers but it won’t be enough down the road.
Before the game, on the plaza of AmericanAirlines Arena, it was hard to miss Shaquille O’Neal, who was providing commentary with his TNT mates.
“Shaq is back,” fans cried out, snapping photos and waving a little longingly at His Bigness. “Hey, Shaq!”
The Heat could have used him. The Pacers kept the game tight by forcing Miami’s players into their discomfort zone -- a deliberate half court game rather than their preferred breathless transition game.
“Our guys earned the ice bags and ice baths,” Spoelstra said.
The 6-11 Bosh considers himself an unconventional center. His job is to keep things fluid so Miami can run, run, run Indiana into mistakes and into the ground. He’s got to use his soft shooting touch to lure Hibbert from his lair in the post where he keeps a lid on things.
He did so late in the third quarter, uprooting Hibbert on a short jumper. Hibbert lunged, hit Bosh on the wrist and went to the bench with four fouls while Bosh swished two free throws.
But for other portions of the game, it was Bosh who was in foul trouble or ineffective. He took only two shots in limited first half minutes, when he was saddled with three fouls, and was not a factor on the boards, where the Heat is constantly at a disadvantage. He missed a bank shot in overtime and allowed Hibbert to elevate over him for a point-blank basket. He finished with 17 points and just two rebounds.
He was also a savior, completing a three-point play to tie the score at 99 in overtime. Bosh came through when he tipped in a Shane Battier miss at the rim with Hibbert on his back. Then he sank the free throw.
“We were flat and I think that gave us a little bit of life,” Bosh said.
Bosh made Pacers coach Frank Vogel gamble on strategy for the last play with 2.2 seconds left.
“That’s the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five spot and his ability to space the floor,” Vogel said of his decision to keep Hibbert sitting. “We put in a switching lineup. Obviously, with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in. But you don’t know. If that happens, maybe Bosh is making the jump shot and we’re talking about that.”
They possess two different body types: Bosh is the spindly ostrich, with a deceptively quick takeoff step. Hibbert is a condo tower blocking out the light.
Bosh missed almost all of the Indiana playoff series last season because of a pulled abdominal muscle, and Miami sorely missed his ability to stretch Indiana’s interior defense and open avenues for James and Dwyane Wade.
He calls himself and Hibbert the X factors for their teams. In order for Miami to get cleanly through this series, and onward to an NBA Finals matchup against formidable centers on either the Spurs or Grizzlies, Bosh has to be more than an X factor. He must be a fully integrated member of the Big Three, not the member derisively marginalized as part of the Big 2-1/2 in previous seasons. He is the underrated cog that makes the Heat click.
“I want to put something on Hibbert’s mind,” Bosh said. “If he’s in the paint, altering shots, you’re probably not going to be in the position you want to be in. I want to take him a couple steps out and make him think about it.”
Bosh had his moments. But Hibbert logged a complete game with 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. His partner down low, David West, damaged the Heat severely with 26 points, mostly on midrange jumpers.
Chris “Birdman” Andersen provided more punch off the bench than Bosh did as a starter. Andersen made seven of seven shots, collected five rebounds and smacked three blocks. He disrupted shots and flustered Hibbert. His aggression was a bigger asset than Bosh’s outside shooting prowess because his defense catalyzed the Heat’s offense.
When Bosh returned, two minutes to go, he backed into Hibbert, then wheeled around him for a left-handed hook and a four-point lead. Hibbert responded by scoring on the other end, and after West found a clear path to the basket, the score was tied with 50.4 seconds left. Miami’s subsequent lead evaporated when George sank a long, off-balance three-pointer over James to send the game into overtime.
It was too close, much too close, especially for a home game in which the Heat should have dictated an attacking tone and set a furious pace.
Bosh let out one of his primal screams as James sealed the victory and the crowd exhaled in relief. Had Hibbert been on the floor, who knows what might have transpired? He was the X factor. Bosh was, too. A big question mark won’t be enough if the Heat is to reach its final destination.