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On Chris Bosh, the Pacers and ‘third banana problems’

Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) is fouled by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) is fouled by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Spoelstra has never been much for a controversial sound bite – he’d always much rather appease the media with platitudes and crowd-pleasing answers than say anything that might spark a headline. But for all of the relentless boringness that the Miami Heat coach brings to the table nightly, he does steadfastly adhere to one unusual opinion – throughout the last four years, he’s maintained that Chris Bosh is the most important player on his team.

I suppose it’s up for debate why he harps on this point – maybe he truly believes it, or maybe he’s merely throwing a bone to a guy who goes a bit under-recognized in the shadow of his more glamorous teammates. But whatever the reason, it certainly seems a little odd to refer to Bosh as the key player on a team led by two NBA Finals MVPs, one of them among the 10 best players of all time.

I’m guessing that Bosh, being one of the more cerebral players in the NBA today, internalizes this sentiment more than he lets on. He knows that while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade may account for more jersey sales and TV commercials than he ever will, he’s still a focal point. He understands the idea that as he goes, the team goes.

There’s a certain expectation that comes with being the second or third banana on a great team – people want you to do a lot, but not too much. Overshoot people’s projections, and you’re a spotlight-hogger, as Russell Westbrook is labeled when he steals shots from Kevin Durant; but disappear, and you’re a choker. Fans and media members all want their first, second and third options to fit neatly into a hierarchy wherein one guy scores 25 points every night, the second adds 20 and the third chips in 15; any deviation, and it’s cause for concern.

Whether he lets on publicly or not, Bosh often looks like a player who’s laboring to get that 15. Perhaps even forcing it. Because he’s a versatile big man – one who can score in the post, execute pick-and-rolls and step out for a decently efficient jump shot – it often works out OK for him. But occasionally he runs into a matchup where his usual tricks won’t fly.

Anyway. About these Eastern Conference finals.

You watch Bosh against the Indiana Pacers, and he looks like the kid in the swimming pool who’s still learning to swim. He’ll dip a toe in, maybe take a few steps into the water, but he’s scared to death of the deep end.

Bosh tries to make himself relevant against the Pacers. He really does. But for a whole laundry list of reasons, this is a nightmare matchup for the lanky power forward, and forcing his offense just won’t work.

A few common examples of a Bosh scoring opportunity gone wrong against Indiana:

-The Heat attempt to run a 2-4 pick-and-roll with Wade and Bosh. They try to work quickly, but they’re not quick enough for Lance Stephenson, who fights like a maniac through the pick and suffocates Wade, allowing David West to stay home on Bosh. The result: A tough, contested jumper from Bosh with the physical West all over him.

-The Heat try a 3-4 pick-and-roll with LeBron and Bosh. Both defenders commit to LeBron up top, leaving Bosh seemingly open – until Roy Hibbert, who’s lurking in the paint, is able to cheat off of a weaker offensive player like Udonis Haslem and disrupt the driving Bosh. Hibbert, for all his struggles lately, remains a huge dude. Good luck scoring on him.

-The Heat run an isolation set, and Bosh, knowing that Hibbert lurks in the paint, decides he’s not even gonna try. Instead he hangs out in the corner and waits to shoot a spot-up 3. Sometimes that shot will go in; more often, it won’t. Bosh has improved dramatically as a distance shooter since his Toronto days, but he’s still not a good one. He shot 33.9 percent from 3 this season, and that’s with almost every look being wide open against a defense that’s terrified of LeBron driving. If you had a team of 12 almost-always-open Chris Boshes, you’d rank 27th in the NBA in 3-point shooting.

All three of the above are actual plays from the first two games of this series, and variations of the same have been happening all year. In six games against the Pacers this year, regular season and playoffs, Bosh’s point totals have been 12, 15, 8, 10, 9 and 9. He’s got a total of 63 points on 63 shot attempts – a perfect 1:1 ratio that’s a far cry from the 1,281 points on 953 shots he totaled this year. The eye test and the numbers agree: Bosh struggles against this Indy team.

Which is fine. Everyone has matchup problems, even the best of them. LeBron himself struggles against teams that can keep a body on him, push him out of the paint and force him into jumpers. It happens. Nobody beats everybody.

This isn’t intended as an all-out assault on Bosh, who’s only human and is merely trying to do his part. When one player struggles, it should be the entire team’s responsibility to find a way around it. And lord knows that the Heat, being the Heat, have plenty of tools they can use. The onus isn’t just on Bosh to change his approach – it should be on Spoelstra to tweak his offense, on LeBron and Wade to use their explosiveness and craftiness respectively to carry more of the load, and on members of the supporting cast like Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers to knock down timely shots when open. The Heat have plenty even without squeezing a double-double out of Bosh.

For Bosh? There will be other rounds for him to shine, other achievements for him to rack up when the time is right. There’s no need to force it – not on a Miami team that has the luxury of picking and choosing its weapons as the situation warrants. For now, the best course of action might be for Bosh to act as a relative decoy. He can still shoot when open, but there’s no need to overdo it.

That might be hard for Bosh to stomach at this juncture. Worth noting: During the Game 1 broadcast last Sunday afternoon, Jeff Van Gundy raised the debate prompt of whether Bosh is a surefire Hall of Famer, and that ignited a decent amount of controversy. There’s a school of thought that Springfield-bound players are known for rising to the occasion and dominating when it matters, not for fading into the background. You need to win rings, and you need to do so actively, not merely by tagging along for the ride with a bigger star by LeBron.

Humbly, I submit that that line of thinking is flawed. Here’s an alternative theory – Bosh is the Heat’s most important player, but for a more nuanced reason than that. It’s a game-changer when he does more, but it’s equally impactful when he does less.

Evans Clinchy