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Tug O' War with Chris Bosh

by Couper Moorhead

What was the most crucial element to Miami’s offense last season? What allowed that offense to function with such efficiency against all manner of opponents on the path to a title?

Was it LeBron James in the post? Was it Dwyane Wade cutting off the ball? Was it Chris Bosh’s pick-and-roll game or the spot-up shooting of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller? Was it the HEAT simply having some of the most talented dribble creators in the league?

The HEAT don’t win without those things, but they were all enabled by the team’s spacing. Spacing allows shooters to catch the ball and get a shot off. Spacing allows James and Wade to post-up without being encumbered by multiple defenders and it gives dribblers a place to attack. We always talk about how open a player is, but what we’re really talking about is how well the floor is spaced. If Bosh is consistently getting wide-open looks, it isn’t a coincidence – it’s because each player on the court is cognizant of how their presence affects the scoring potential of their teammates.

This is why our series preview focused on how the HEAT were going to combat Larry Sanders, not with *physicality and *toughness as the heralds of the 1990’s so often decree as one of Miami’s weaknesses but with spacing. Milwaukee’s defense is one that allows frequent shots around the rim, where Sanders often waits as the lone sentry. The further they can pull Sanders away from his appointed zone, the more the HEAT can get layups and dunks and other shots that generally lead to winning playoff games.

Despite Sanders being in foul trouble for much of Miami’s 20-plus point Game 1 victory, the HEAT managed to successfully draw Sanders farther and farther out of the paint until finally Sanders thought he was out and the HEAT puullled him back in.

The catalyst for Sanders’ constant vacillation between two extremes? Chris Bosh, of course.

Threes are nothing new for Bosh. He’s been working on them for about two years, and as Miami’s lineups have evolved so have his opportunities. Bosh took a little over 30 threes last year despite constant work in practice, but when he returned from an abdominal injury in the playoffs to a team that was using James and Battier as its power forwards, Bosh began stepping out to the corner even more – famously hitting a pair of corner threes in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics.

When the HEAT returned to Miami for training camp this season, it was all corners everything for Bosh. He worked on catching on the move and setting his feet – he has a wide base when he shoots as opposed to the square, toes-lined-up form of Battier or Ray Allen – within the tight constraint of the corner lines. It became a talking point because he talked about it, and then it became a talking point because he did it, eventually coming out with a single three-point attempt per game.

“That’s a shot that’s very much in his range,” Erik Spoelstra said. “If you’ve seen him shoot out on the practice court, he shoots that at a very high percentage, much like any of our three-point shooters. He doesn’t stay where he is. He knows that spacing for us is a critical thing and depending on lineups sometimes he has to be out there [in the corner].”

The resulting percentages weren’t great even though Bosh did hit over 30 percent of his 42 corner attempts, but the shot was so effortless and the arc was so consistent that removing the shot from his arsenal never became a realistic option. If a few shots rimming in and out was the difference between 30 and 40 percent shooting, nobody was going to gripe. And if Bosh setting up in the corners and being a threat made life easier for his teammates, he was going to be encouraged to do it even more.

Good thing for the HEAT. Annoyance for Larry Sanders.

Bosh was in the corner from the get-go in Game 1, taking his first (open) three on Miami’s first possession:

Screen grab of Milwaukee @ Miami

Bosh misses this shot, so Sanders plays the result – it remains a subject of confusion how often defenders are affected by in-game shooting despite what they should know about a player’s capabilities before the game even begins.

About one minute later, Bosh gets to the exact same spot and Sanders gives him the same cushion.

Screen grab of Milwaukee @ Miami

Bosh hits this one, and so begins the game of Larry Sanders tug-o-war.

Watch where Sanders is set up the next time down the floor.

Screen grab of Milwaukee @ Miami

It’s only a matter of a step or two in one direction, but it’s incredible what the HEAT are able to do when the primary help defender can’t rest with a foot in the paint. Now Sanders is slightly out of position, and Dwyane Wade is able to do this:

“I think what really opened up everybody was [Bosh],” LeBron James said. “He started off shooting the ball the way he did, knocking down those corner threes – I think he opened the lane up for all of us.”

First Bosh draws Sanders out with a three, then Wade pulls him back in for a layup. That must mean it’s about time for Bosh to be open again, right? Right:

Screen grab of Milwaukee @ Miami

And so the night continued, for a time. Sanders fell into foul trouble – in part because he started closing out on Bosh too aggressively and Bosh drew a foul by putting the ball on the floor – but we also didn’t get to see this matchup fully pan out because Bucks coach Jim Boylan elected to switch starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova onto Bosh and assigning Sanders to Udonis Haslem, switching the two defenders back and forth over the course of the game.

In one sense, if what Bosh is doing forces a strategic change from the defense, then what he is doing is working. But the HEAT didn’t see the switch as a sign of early success – the resulting spacing is a better indicator – just the Bucks offering a different look.

“It really doesn’t always matter who they put on me,” Bosh said. “The offense is the offense. There’s a reason why we do it. We get open shots, efficient shots. We put them in tough places. No matter who’s guarding me it’s just going to be different.”

“I think our mentality is that there’s no wrong answer for us,” Battier said. “We take whatever the defense gives us and we try to turn that into some good offensive basketball. It’s just different. I don’t know if one [defensive assignment] is better than the other, but I think we’ve shown that we can score in different ways.”

Putting Ilyasova on Bosh does two things. First, it makes Ilyasova defend Bosh, which isn’t the best matchup for Milwaukee, but it also makes Sanders the primary defender in most pick-and-rolls (with Haslem setting screens). While Sanders is an extremely capable pick-and-roll defender, the Bucks use him the same as the Pacers use Roy Hibbert or the Bulls use Joakim Noah: stay back in the paint, wait for the attack and protect the rim. This gives ballhandlers a consistent cushion of space to utilize off high screens, and it also removes Sanders as the help defender (as he was on Bosh). Now the HEAT can go right at Sanders instead of having to worry about where he is when they attack the paint. There’s no mystery about what is right in front of you.

So, if Ilyasova on Bosh doesn’t work out – Chalmers was quick to take advantage when the switch was made after those early Bosh threes – then it’s back to Sanders on Bosh and the cycle continues.

This might seem like a lot of talk about a matchup between a player who was on the court for 18 minutes and a player who took seven shots, but that’s the beauty of spacing. You don’t always have to touch the ball to space the floor properly, and this interplay between Bosh and Sanders (and any center Bosh encounters in the future) isn’t going away.

Whether Bosh is in the corner or on the free-throw line extended on the weakside of the floor, he’s going to be spacing the floor. You might not notice it until Bosh hits shots that you aren’t as used to him hitting, but it’s going to be a problem for Larry Sanders and the Bucks until either Milwaukee figures it out or the series is over.