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Managing Expectations for Chris Bosh

The Miami HEAT are one game away from their season ending at the hands of a Boston Celtics team that has seen its offensive efficiency jump from about 96 points per 100 possessions in the first two rounds of the playoffs to 102.8 in the Eastern Conference Finals. While coming short of a complete transformation, Boston’s improvements have defied most expectations for this series because there was so little existing evidence that this sort of performance was even possible.

When things happen that we weren’t prepared for, we search for answers. In the absence of answers, we place blame, of which there has been plenty slung about. But once a situation gets sufficient time to breathe and the frustration passes, the search for the concrete explanation gets moved aside in favor of the quest for a solution. Not a guaranteed fix, just a possible one.

This will often manifest itself either as hope, blind and otherwise, or as applied logic, but no matter where the thought process hits on the scales of reason, a focus can fall on a singular possibility. For many before Game 6 in Boston, that beacon is Chris Bosh. After all, he played 14 minutes in Game 5, scoring nine points to go with seven rebounds. Why couldn’t each of those numbers double as he played the savior to Miami’s season?

Bosh certainly could do all of that, it’s just not entirely probable, and expecting it of him is neither fair nor, based on those 14 minutes, rational.

This is clear primarily because of how Bosh was used in Game 5.

In a typical regular-season game, Bosh used six combined post-ups and isolations, taking out offensive rebounds and cuts to tighten the focus on offense ran specifically through him. Tuesday night he had one such possession, with his other plays and shot attempts deriving from his six offensive boards – most of which were one-handed tip-in attempts. Miami sets would often begin by passing the ball to Bosh at either elbow or at the top of the arc to spread the floor, giving the HEAT a confident passer time to survey the floor as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade made plays without the ball. At the end of those sets, Bosh was a safety valve by design, a constant option for when things broke down.

Against Boston, Bosh did little of this. He would run down the floor, find his spot along the baseline, wait for the play to develop and then (effectively) crash the boards. Once, the ball found him early at the top of the key and he took a quick jumper that missed. A couple of other times, he set high screens only to slip them early, meet a defender in the lane and return to the baseline. Another time he caught that safety-valve pass, pump-faked Greg Stiemsma and attacked the rim where Paul Pierce drew a charge. His two best possessions came when other HEAT players penetrating off the dribble and he finished around the paint.

This was all by design, of course. Just as he did in not starting Bosh against Kevin Garnett, Erik Spoelstra wasn’t expecting Bosh to hit the ground running at 100 miles an hour. He let Bosh try to make plays, but didn’t put him in positions that would force him to.

Even if Bosh starts, which he could, and even if his minutes come close to doubling, which they could as well, it would be a bit of a leap to expect Spoelstra to decide that one test-appearance was enough and that Bosh is again ready for the entire burden his minutes usually entail. And if he isn’t being put on the floor being asked to be Bosh, how then could he save Miami with a Bosh-like impact without the opportunity?

He still could, but that impact will have to come from energy plays, from grabbing loose balls and finishing off the creation of others. Even if he does make a positive offensive impact, there’s still the matter of defense, where the HEAT might need Bosh more than anywhere else.

Simply put, Miami needs someone to stop Garnett from catching the ball in the paint and getting the easy baskets that have pulled Boston through the deepest of scoring chasms. They need someone to stay between Garnett and the basket and prevent the passes over the top of the defense, and they need someone with length and mobility to provide backside help when those passes do get in the air. As we’ve seen over the past season and a half, a healthy Bosh is perfectly capable of doing that.

But this isn’t a healthy Bosh. Nobody is in game shape after missing three weeks, and game shape doesn’t just mean not running out of breathe. It means being able to change directions on the fly, to sprint 30 feet to one spot, muscle another large person out of that spot, and then sprint another 30 feet back from where you came from all while maintaining a constant awareness of what is happening on the floor around you and making the necessary split-second decisions.

Call it being a step slow if you will, but the Bosh of Game 5 was not able to do those things the way he usually can. While Spoelstra can ease the pressure off Bosh by simplifying his responsibilities when Miami has the ball, there is nothing he can do to prevent possessions to be used against him defensively other than controlling his matchups.

None of this is to say that Bosh can’t have an impact, but expecting him to save the day might be missing the point of the series so far. Important as he is, the HEAT don’t need Bosh to beat the Celtics. They need to win loose balls. They need to recognize the defensive coverages thrown at them – all of which they’ve seen before this season – and adjust accordingly. They need to move without the ball and make quick decisions with it. They need to help one another on defense. More than anything, they need to get back in transition and stop a team that struggles to score easy baskets from scoring easily.

They don’t need Bosh to do those things alone. They don’t need Bosh to save them. What he offers them is a push over the top, an early jumper that might afford the team a few minutes of spacing by pulling Garnett away from the basket, a capable finisher around the rim and some made free throws. But if Bosh providing that is the only difference in Miami winning and losing Game 6, then there would still be holes to fill before Game 7.

In the words of Ron Swanson (and a few other folks), you can offer a hungry man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Bosh can offer them a meal, but the HEAT need to start fishing.