You can't miss him when he checks into the game.
Sure, you've got the mohawk adding inches to his 6-foot-10 frame and the colorful tattoos testing the full capabilities of high definition televisions around the country, but the real reason you can't miss Chris Andersen when he checks into the game is because of the impact he has on the floor. Unfortunately for the Miami Heat, he'll be suspended for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night for his actions against Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5.
Since the Heat signed Andersen in late January, they've gone 50-6 in games when he's played, including the playoffs. Some of that might just be coincidence considering he was there for the historic 27-game winning streak. That's bound to boost any record from a cross-section of the season. But there are reasons why he's so important to this Heat team.
He gives them something they never really had before he arrived: a second finisher in the paint.
We know Dwyane Wade and LeBron James can get into the lane and finish around the basket with high rates of success. But before the Birdman started soaring around the rim in American Airlines Arena, Chris Bosh was the only big man the Heat had who could finish inside. He finished at an incredible rate of 75.5 percent around the rim this season, but he's been better used as another spacer of the floor.
When Wade and James get into the paint, they're usually finding resistance from that backline of defense, especially against this Indiana Pacers defense. Roy Hibbert steps up to cut off the path to the rim and that briefly leaves the area behind him wide-open for an opportunistic big man. Andersen has been that opportunistic big man during his stint with the Heat and even more so in the Eastern Conference finals.
He hasn't missed a shot, going 15 of 15 from the field during these five games against the Pacers. Fourteen of those attempts have come in the restricted area. After Game 1, Hibbert said the difference between facing the Heat this postseason as opposed to last postseason was having that dump-off pass from James or Wade to a big man who can finish inside. It was a big enough problem early on in the series that Pacers coach Frank Vogel made "helping the helper" the mantra of this Pacers' defense.
Last year, they had Joel Anthony in that role when Bosh was out of the game or spacing the floor. Anthony's hands don't give you great confidence that he'll be able to perform at the same high level as the Birdman.
So what do you do to replace Andersen's contributions and threat on the floor? Do you trust Anthony to drive to the basket with perfect timing and finish inside?
In 70 games this season (plus playoffs), Anthony dunked the ball just seven times in his 590 minutes on the floor. In the 56 games Andersen has played in for the Heat, he's dunked the ball 48 times in 839 minutes. He's just more aggressive and athletic while possessing better hands to catch those quick dump-off passes.
There are a couple of ways the Heat can take this. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Anthony will receive some of Andersen's minutes in Game 6 Saturday, but it would be shocking if Anthony received all of the 18.4 minutes per game the Birdman has had in this round. The minutes Udonis Haslem can give Miami have to be maximized and we have to see the type of effort and execution he gave them in Game 3 when he scored 17 points on 8 of 9 shooting at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Without any other more conventional big men at the Heat's disposal, they could give heavier minutes to Shane Battier guarding David West and hope he counteracts the brawn with some bombs from the outside to keep the Pacers' defense honest.
Going small with Bosh at center and James at power forward is probably something we'll see more of during Game 6. We could also see more minutes for Mike Miller to give the team a bigger wing player who can rebound the ball while spacing the floor. Without the dump-off pass inside to someone like Andersen, the Heat will have to concentrate even more on making Indiana pay with outside shooting. The 3-pointers from Ray Allen and Battier that haven't been falling need to start finding the bottom of the net. If Miller is inserted into the rotation for more minutes, he has to stretch the floor with accurate shooting.
We might see a style shift in the way the Heat attack. The penetration into the paint could just be smoke and mirrors to execute from beyond the arc, where the Pacers have snuffed out opponents all season long. Miami is shooting just 34.3 percent from 3-point range in this series, after making 39.6 percent during the regular season.
Regardless of which path the Heat take against the Pacers in Game 6, they'll be without a key component in their rotation that helps keep the backline of defense for their opponents wary of rotating. Miami is still a very good team without the Birdman, but the Heat have been soaring over the league since his arrival. They'll have to find another way to find a victory in Game 6 if they want to avoid a Game 7.