|Once Bosh gets back into uniform, the Celtics will be forced to make adjustments vs. the Heat. (Getty Images)|
For three of the four games in the Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics have been comfortable. Most of the time, they've been in control of themselves, and also of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The Miami Heat's dynamic duo formed a two-man wrecking crew in Game 1, but since then, the Celtics have kept the damage manageable. As the series shifts back to Miami for Game 5 on Tuesday night, tied 2-2, the back story that has been hanging around will arrive at a tipping point: Assuming Chris Bosh is ready to return from a strained abdominal muscle suffered May 13 against the Pacers, what difference will it make?
The only easy answer is, there are no guarantees.
No guarantee Bosh will be effective, mobile and durable enough. And no guarantee that, after nine games without Bosh, James and Wade will be able to seamlessly adjust to life with him back on the floor.
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Bosh is a lot of things -- a high-level pick-and-pop player, a reliable release valve from 15-20 feet when James and Wade encounter their usual heavy doses of double-teams, trapping and human walls between them and the basket. But he is not a physical player by nature, and this has been an intense, physical, rough-and-tumble series. A series to which only big boys need apply. If Bosh plays -- and the Heat are hopeful that, absent a setback between now and Tuesday night, he will -- it's impossible to overstate how difficult it will be for him to join that fray and adjust to the physical tone that's been set.
For Bosh, who has a debilitating injury that typically takes 4-6 weeks to recover from, it will be like running alongside a freight train and trying to jump aboard.
"A good old classic bar fight," is how the Celtics' Paul Pierce described it.
Bosh is a lot of things, but he ain't much for bar fights. However, with his ability to space the floor, get the Celtics' defense on the move and give Doc Rivers and defensive assistant Mike Longabardi another option to worry about, could even a limited, rusty, out-of-condition Bosh be effective enough to swing the series back in Miami's favor?
After losing two straight without Bosh against the Pacers, the Heat won the next three -- two of them at Indiana -- to close out the Pacers in six games. They did it with top-heavy, otherworldly performances from James and Wade, who made combining for 70 points commonplace in Bosh's absence. Pacers coach Frank Vogel noted that the loss of Bosh wasn't actually a disadvantage for the Heat, since it resulted in more touches and scoring opportunities for James and Wade.
"Probably the biggest confidence builder for our team was the mere fact that, for the last two years, we not only couldn't win without Chris, but we couldn't play effective without Chris," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He was our most important player. And we've had to reinvent ourselves it seems like daily to do that."
But the tide began to turn in the Boston series, particularly after Game 1. In the opener, James and Wade continued their dominance, combining for 54 points in the Heat's 93-79 victory. Since then, especially in the two games in Boston, James and Wade haven't gotten enough relief from the role players. The absence of Bosh was never more noticeable than in Game 4.
"Every player in this league's a role player; that's the secret," Battier said. "It's just that some have the role of being 30- or 40-point scorers. We're all role players. We just do our jobs, and every job is vital if you want to win."
What can Bosh do, if he's healthy enough to stay on the floor and sharp enough to make a difference? On the final play of regulation in Game 4, maybe James is kicking out of Kevin Garnett's double-team to an open Bosh instead of Udonis Haslem. Better yet, if Garnett had Bosh to worry about, maybe the double team doesn't come from him, which would've given James a chance to throw a more accurate pass.
With James fouled out for the last 1:51 of overtime, maybe Wade launching a 3-pointer at the buzzer wouldn't have been the best look available. A pick-and-pop with Bosh, with Mario Chalmers in the corner for a higher-percentage 3-point shot, would have put a lot more stress on the Celtics' defense and given Miami a better chance of taking a commanding 3-1 lead.
Either way, the mere presence of Bosh on the floor changes things defensively for the Celtics and takes some of the pressure off James and Wade. Also, to the extent Bosh can defend Garnett, Spoelstra will have more minutes to leave James on Pierce without putting his best defender in the post against a 7-footer.
But is relying on Bosh to be the difference-maker a winning formula for Miami? In two years of battles between these teams, Bosh has rarely gotten the better of his matchup with Garnett and has hardly been a statistical difference maker.
In Miami's 4-1 series victory over Boston in the conference semifinals last year, Bosh and Garnett played to a draw three times. Garnett outscored Bosh 28-6 in the Celtics' Game 3 victory, and Bosh returned the favor in Game 4, outscoring Garnett 20-7 as KG went 1-for-10 from the field.
A deeper dive that includes their regular season meetings since the Heat formed their Big Three reveals that Bosh's on- and off-court differential has been minimal against the Celtics. In the 2010-11 regular season, Bosh's net rating (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions with him on vs. off the floor) was minus-6, according to NBA.com stats. In the '10-11 playoffs, it was plus-2.6, and in the '11-12 regular season, it was plus-6.3.
And those numbers were for a healthy Bosh. The one the Celtics will see in Game 5, if he plays, presumably will be physically limited. And more to the point, he will need time to quickly transition from the light, mostly individual workouts and rehab he's been doing for the better part of a month to the teeth of a physical playoff series that has taken on the tone of a prize fight.
Can Bosh help the Heat finally solve the Celtics and move a step closer to the prize? In theory, yes. But there are no guarantees.