The Defensive Travels of Chris Bosh
Again and again, Erik Spoelstra has referred to Chris Bosh as the Miami HEAT’s most important player. While he has a repertoire of phrasings that come as easily to him as breathing, Spoelstra doesn’t say this about Bosh for medicinal purposes. It’s a necessary reminder, a preface to both criticism and praise.
Spoelstra says it so often, because we so often forget – sometimes even as Bosh is doing everything that could possibly be asked of him.
This phenomenon isn’t the fault of anyone in particular. From the moment he signed on to play with the league’s most transcendent talent and one of the best shooting guards of all time, Bosh was always going to have to make his name in the nooks and crannies of the HEAT narrative. He was going to score, defend and rebound, he just wasn’t going to do it with as much pop as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That duo would enjoy the greatest acclaim and the harshest criticisms. For good or bad, James and Wade would leap off the page. Bosh would be the steady man in a world of extremes. A man, in a sense, of the Night’s Watch.
‘I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.’
What made, and continues to make, Bosh so important is that nobody was asked to sacrifice more or wear a wider variety of masks on the court. As the years wore on, the team would adapt its entire system to the talents of James. Wade had to evolve as the philosophy changed, but there were always dots for him to connect. Only Bosh could show up to work one day, discover a whole new list of responsibilities and then figure out how to become the player the team needed him to be only to have to repeat the process within months, weeks or days. Only Bosh has had to be exactly what he never was before in order for his team to reach its potential.
There was a widespread expectation at the beginning of the playoffs that Spoelstra would go small, reinsert Shane Battier into the starting lineup and roll with the group that won the team a championship against the Oklahoma City Thunder a year before. This didn’t happen for a number of reasons, in part due to the emergence of Chris Andersen as the third big man the HEAT had never quite had before. But with Mike Miller playing the role of Battier, Spoelstra made the move before Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The team would find its pacing and its spacing once again, and Bosh was asked to be responsible for protecting the rim from all manner of foe.
“When we play with those lineups, he's the last man there,” Spoelstra said. “We need Chris to be big and to do so many different things and wear a lot of different hats.”
Wade and James would be more than willing to help out as the pair amassed three blocks and six steals – often stripping the ball out of the hands of rolling big men – and the rest of Miami’s rotation club was on point as Miller, Battier and Ray Allen routinely slid along the baseline to put a body on Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter. But Bosh was the fulcrum. Tony Parker ran one pick-and-roll after another with Duncan, and possessions became a test of focus, endurance and discipline as Bosh was forced to defend one action after another outside of the paint until morphing into a rim protector as the shot clock neared zero.
Help once, help again, recover and defend.
For perhaps the first time all season, there was never a second big man – James doesn’t count – on the floor. It was either Bosh or Haslem. Never both. And from San Antonio’s first possession, it was clear that this would be a different Bosh. Whatever the team needed him to do, he would. Jumpers would fall as he contested and some spectacular passes would get by and behind him in the paint, but Bosh never left his post.
“The biggest thing was just trying to let him know how important he is, how important he was going to be to us winning this game tonight,” Wade said. “He responded in a good way, but we got to continue to respond if we want to do what we did last year, and that's win a championship.”
This was, without question, the best and most consistent defensive game of Bosh’s season – a return to the form of last season’s playoffs. In the 38 minutes that Bosh was on the floor, the Spurs scored less than 100 points per possession, but that number doesn’t do Bosh’s work justice. As the man making Spoelstra’s use of smaller, floor-spacing lineups possible, all roads led through Bosh and Bosh had to sprint down every one of them.
According to Stats LLC’s SportVU cameras, the Spurs shot 50 percent last night on the 20 shots taken when Bosh was within five feet of the shooting player, but a sample-size warning would be appropriate here even if that percentage was halved. When the Spurs beat Bosh with interior passing, it was often after he had rotated off his man to help on dribble penetration, leaving a player behind him available for a tough catch.
What might be more indicative of Bosh’s defensive energy is the sheer distance he traveled – something that should correlate to both the amount of pressure San Antonio put on Bosh and the number of rotations he was making. While the SportVU cameras captured a little less than half of Bosh’s games this season, they tracked him traveling, on average, 89 feet per defensive possession.
Against the Spurs in Game 4, Bosh traveled an average of 100 feet per defensive possession, with six closeouts of 10 feet or more. Eleven feet may not seem like much, but eleven feet at the tail end of a possession where Bosh is the only big-man defending a pick-and-roll was often the difference between a layup and a miss.
“Against [Duncan] you know he's always going to make it tough on you,” Bosh said. “He's always going to play a two-man game with him and Parker, him and Ginobili. And not only do you have to do your job on the defensive end by sliding your feet on the pick-and-roll coverage, you have to get back, get in front of him hopefully, try your best to really push him out, and play defense.”
While the HEAT typically play one of the most aggressive brands of defense in the league, trapping the pick-and-roll almost twice as often as anyone else, they have scaled things back a bit against the precision passing of the Spurs. Rather than having Bosh jump out on the ballhandler – in situations other than sideline traps – Bosh has been playing a flatter, more containment-focused coverage. At times in the first three games, this led to the HEAT’s entire defense being more passive than intended. You can contain the perimeter but still swarm the interior.
Bosh found that balance – again, with the help of his teammate’s excellent backline rotations. Here, he hedges on Ginobili and recovers to Duncan in the middle of the floor as Miller helps.
In any of the previous games of this series, Kawhi Leonard is probably about to get an open dunk. But Bosh returns the favor to the helping Miller, getting from the spot in the image above to the spot in front of and above Leonard to contest alongside James (who was credited with the official block).
There’s that 11 feet. One more rotation, and a possible Spurs dunk turns into the HEAT sprinting in the other direction.
Sometimes, that 11 extra feet forced the Spurs into making a spectacular play. Bosh would swarm from one help position to another, only to watch Parker hit a leaning-diving-scooping layup or Gary Neal channel J.R. Smith on a short-clock three.
But when the spectacular ran out, there was still Bosh.
As the HEAT closed its grasp on the game in the fourth quarter, Bosh offered a lasting image of himself, laying on the floor in the corner, holding the ball as he pointed to an official for a timeout. After a night of rotation after rotation and fighting his way in front of Duncan, Bosh cut this defensive possession short. Just tip the pass, dive and go and get it.
The offense was there, too. More there than it had been in nearly a month as Bosh scored 20 for the first time since the Chicago series – including five shots at the rim as Bosh and Wade worked an efficient two-man game. We can’t take this for granted, as once again Bosh has been asked to change roles, to go from a pick-and-roll diver to a three-point floor spacer and back again. But it’s his defense that makes the HEAT’s most potent lineups hum – and leads to the rebounds by which Bosh is so often judged.
That’s why Bosh is Miami’s most important player. Yes, plenty of the offense runs through him, more than most people realize, but the HEAT have and always will feed off their defense. And when Bosh dons that mask and gives the extra 11 feet, the HEAT can do just about anything.