Playing Five-on-Two with Chris Bosh

Chris Bosh
Photo Credit: Nathaniel S. Butler

You’re the head coach of a professional basketball team. It’s the second night of a back-to-back at the end of a five-game week, and you’re missing three starters. The opponent’s starting shooting guard had scored 22 points in the first quarter, and with a minute to play he hit the go-ahead jumper. Your team ties things up. Timeout. Forty seconds left and you need a stop. You look up and down your bench. The shooting guard is going to get the ball. You know it. Your players know it. The kid in the upper deck sucking the last bit of melted ice cream out of his cone knows it. You need to choose a primary defender.

How does your starting center sound?

Erik Spoelstra has long referred to LeBron James as the Miami HEAT’s ‘One Through Five’ – trusted to play and defend any position at any time – but with increasing regularity over the past year Spoelstra has been using the same moniker when discussing Chris Bosh. It’s no secret that the HEAT employ a hyper aggressive defensive style, relying on speed and length to manufacture chaos and turnovers, and even though the notion still appears to be a revelation in some corners of the internet the system doesn’t work without Bosh being able to both cover huge swaths of real estate and capably stay in front of the ball no matter where it lands.

“Chris Bosh is an elite defender in this league and he is proving it every single night,” Spoelstra said earlier last week.

Bosh may not have scored in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but without his defense that night there’s no champagne, no parade and no rings. Though he hasn’t escaped Miami’s bouts with defensive stagnancy during this regular season, no HEAT player leaves more of a defensive void when he hits the bench. With Bosh on the floor, Miami’s defense has been playing with Top-10 efficiency. With Bosh sitting, the team drops below average.

Still, asking Bosh to defend Joe Johnson straight up – no switching, he’s going to catch the ball and you’re going to stop him defense – with the game on the line is quite the leap.

It also worked.

“We felt that that was probably the best matchup to contest with our length and intelligence and discipline,” Spoelstra said.

While we don’t have copies of the team’s scouting reports and thus can’t pretend to know exactly why the choice was made to put Bosh on Johnson, here’s a few guesses as to why Spoelstra felt that way:

  • Bosh is an exceptionally effective defender on the perimeter. While it’s a subjective measurement, Synergy Sports has Bosh down for giving up a mere 0.534 points per possession (116 possessions) when he switches on to a smaller player in a pick-and-roll (allowing 34.8 percent shooting and a 37.1 turnover percentage). That points-per-possession mark happens to be the best in the NBA among all forwards and centers. Small sample, but it’s enough to say that Bosh has been very good in these situations.

  • In a vacuum, Joe Johnson is more likely than not to take a jumper. Johnson is only attempting 1.4 shots in the restricted area a game this season, which accounts for about 10 percent of his total shot selection. But in late-game situations, when players and coaches tend to value simply getting a shot off and not turning the ball over, Johnson is even more inclined to shoot away from the rim. Over the past two and a half seasons – not a huge sample size, but we’re trying to catch number with players being relatively the same age – Johnson has attempted 60 shots in the final minute of games with his team up or down no more than five points. Of those 60 shots, just five have come at the rim. And that’s not accounting for shots that could have come in transition or on putbacks.

So, if you have a player that keeps the ball in front of him well and has the length to contest shots and you need to defend a player who is likely to take a mid-range jumper or a tough floater in the lane, that’s a solid match. It doesn’t matter if one of those players is listed in the frontcourt on the All-Star Ballot. If he’s capable of doing it, why not ask him do it?

It worked on the final possession of regulation, but what really made this sequence stand out is that Spoelstra didn’t make a change in either of the two overtimes. Much of this was out of necessity, as Dwyane Wade wasn’t playing, LeBron James eventually fouled out and the Nets were using relatively positionless lineups with players such as Paul Pierce and Andre Kirilenko alongside Johnson. But for the better part of 11 minutes, Bosh was chasing Johnson around the court. Even though Johnson scored twice on five shots – once on a goaltending call at the shot-clock buzzer – Bosh moved his feet and forced tough, on-the-move shots.

For the better part of 11 minutes, a starting center – a power forward on most other teams – defended a former All-Star shooting guard without surrendering efficiency. How often do you see that? Bosh hadn’t, as no coach at any level had ever asked that much of him.

“It was fun for me, just to take that challenge,” Bosh said. “I didn’t have anything to lose.”

Maybe you see it again, but more likely the next time Bosh is on a smaller player it’s because of a switch in a pick-and-roll – as you saw when Bosh ended up in front of Tony Parker in the Finals. It’s not always frequency that makes something impressive, it’s that it happened at all.

These were special circumstances, but even in the same situation, not many coaches would ask their center to defend a ballhandling guard for more than ten minutes. Nor would many centers be up to the task. It doesn’t happen often, but that’s why this team works. Coaches trust their players enough to ask. Players trust their coaches enough to say yes.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports