|Chris Bosh went down on Sunday and Miami's title hopes hang on his return. (Getty Images)|
You're not beating the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals with two superstars and role players. The best of the West are too talented, too deep, too efficient, too disciplined and too motivated.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, for sure, and it also reveals a crucial assumption: The Miami Heat need Chris Bosh or they are going home empty-handed again.
The Heat announced on Monday that Bosh suffered an abdominal strain during a Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. He's currently listed as out indefinitely, and recovery from this type of injury can take weeks -- plural. For context, a hypothetical Game 7 against the Pacers would take place in less than two weeks: May 26. The big-picture stakes are clear: Bosh returns to the court or the Heat go the way of other recent title contenders who suffered key injuries at inopportune times (2012 Chicago Bulls, 2011 San Antonio Spurs, etc.).
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More immediately, the proper response to a star's injury is to focus on the short-term, to restore order by plotting the next steps, to cross bridges one at a time. For the Heat, who briefly stood as the clear class of the Eastern Conference when Bulls point guard Derrick Rose went down with a season-ending knee injury, there is no alternative approach. Miami was 4-5 without Bosh during the regular season (including a few meaningless late-season shutdown losses) and now must take three of the next six games from the Pacers to make a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. There, they must gut out four wins, likely against the Boston Celtics, just to make the Finals for the second straight year. 48 hours ago, this seemed all but a given. Now, avoiding a step backwards from 2011 seems like a 50/50 -- perhaps a 60/40 -- proposition.
Over the weekend, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said that the Pacers series would be fought in a cage. Now, he's right, as Miami finds itself in a fair fight, one hand tied behind its back thanks to the loss of their power forward. On Monday, Bosh essentially ruled himself out for the Pacers series. Against Indiana, Bosh, who averaged 18.4 points and 8.1 rebounds this season, was asked to serve a number critical functions: he would force towering center Roy Hibbert to play him away from the hoop, he would help get Hibbert into foul trouble, he would do his best to stay with Hibbert defensively so Miami could keep its most talented lineups on the court and he would be a key rebounding presence against a physical frontline. Also, it goes without saying, Bosh would play big-time minutes as he has his entire career. His absence creates a big hole and one that can't be easily covered up.
To fill Bosh's minutes in the second half of Game 1, Spoelstra turned to Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf, a pair of bigs that play with energy but not much polish or skill. They're both capable of giving fouls and finishing the occasional dunk when left wide open at the rim, but neither posseses the pick-and-roll acumen, the shot-creating ability or the range that Bosh does. Not even close.
While Bosh's minutes will be plugged with lesser replacements, his responsibilities will largely fall to LeBron James. Such is life for the do-everything MVP: the best plan when something goes wrong for Miami is to let the best player handle it. James will now be forced to carry a significantly larger burden inside, both rebounding and defending. He could find himself playing the four and even the five for stretches defensively, and there's a decent chance that Spoelstra will squeeze even more playing time out of him, even though he's been averaging 38.7 minutes per game in the postseason. He played 43 minutes in Game 1, and that could become the new standard.
Offensively, James will need to operate without Bosh as a floor-spacer and release valve. He'll likely see more double teams, he'll see more traffic when he attacks the paint and he'll find Hibbert rim-protecting without remorse. Without Bosh able to read defenses and find shooters from the high post, James will take on additional play-making duties as well. These are not impossible tasks, especially with Dwyane Wade present to help share the burden, but the cumulative effect makes this series much, much more of a chore than it would have been with Bosh present.
A looming series with the Celtics presents the same challenges, only magnified. Boston's defense has been exceptional in the postseason, and Bosh is a crucial counterweight to Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. Boston isn't deep or injury-free -- thanks to a nagging ankle troubling Ray Allen and a knee sprain slowing Paul Pierce -- but they are experienced and intelligent enough to exploit Bosh's absence as an opportunity to play the series at their pace and style. A Superman effort from James and Wade could theoretically be enough; but James has fallen short, despite stretches of excellent play, against the Celtics in the past.
All of this amounts to a whirlwind. Until this weekend, Miami was the Las Vegas favorite to win the title, a virtual lock for the Finals. But that was "barring injury" -- as always -- and now injury has struck. James and Wade will step up and the Heat won't fold. But the third piece of the Big 3 championship model is the difference between realizing the dream and falling short once again.