Friday, May 25, 2012

Big Two doing well for Heat -- but Big Three would be better -

Beating the Pacers without Chris Bosh took six games and a chunk of flesh from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were superb yet also gassed.

And now, the Bosh Watch begins in earnest with the next round. As in: How much longer can Miami safely play without the only impact big man on the roster?

It's a weird situation the Heat find themselves in. Wade and LeBron are coming off an epic last three games, when they pounded the Pacers and left little doubt they're the best tandem in basketball. Indiana had no answer for them, and quite honestly, no team could've stopped LeBron and Wade at that level. That was Jerry West-Elgin Baylor stuff. Historic.

Still, just in case you forgot, Wade has a message for you.

"We need Chris," he said.

Bosh remains iffy for the East finals with an abdominal strain, a tricky injury that can take its time healing. An ab strain comes with its own calendar. He could be ready to return, or he might need another week. Or two. Or whenever. His unpredictability puts Miami in a bind, because if he doesn't play, LeBron and Wade must absorb most of the scoring again with little margin for error or an off-night.

So yes, they need Bosh. Sort of. Let us say, without hesitation, that if Wade and James can keep up that MVP-like pace, without wearing down considerably, then Bosh won't be missed either against the Celtics or Sixers. He can sit tight, let his body heal properly without rushing back, and prepare for the Spurs or Thunder.

The Sixers, especially, can be beaten without Bosh. They don't bring a dominant big man. They're a hard-working and tough rebounding team (seventh in the league) but not better than Miami. Their offense goes through a half-dozen guards and forwards while Elton Brand and the bigs mostly set screens. The Heat went 3-0 against the Sixers during the season, winning once without Wade. And last spring in the playoffs they dusted the Sixers in five games, which could've been a sweep had Wade not made a few defensive errors that cost them a game.

The Celtics are a bit different. Boston beat Miami three out of four (although the last win was a rest-game for the starters) during the season and their experience and defense could cause problems for LeBron and Wade.

Besides, if Bosh doesn't play, Kevin Garnett won't sit on the sidelines the way Roy Hibbert did last series. In that situation, Garnett will be a round away from playing for a championship, and this could be his last chance for a second ring. He'll go down shooting.

But the Celtics have their own injury issues. Ray Allen's ankle isn't completely healthy and Avery Bradley, who gave the Celtics big minutes in the playoffs, is done after shoulder surgery. That's why Miami could beat the Celtics, too, if Bosh needs more time.

"They miss him, but they didn't play like they missed him the last few games," said Pacers guard Paul George.

Bosh helps in three main ways. On the screen and roll with James or Wade, he's a better threat than anyone else Miami can offer up. Other teams must respect Bosh. He's also a big help for James on the glass. And he can defend from either big man position without committing silly fouls.

Without Bosh, Miami used Shane Battier on power forwards, and he was hardly a liability. David West was held four points below his playoff average against Battier, who's very clever defensively and prides himself on making the other guy work for points. Basically, he's a pest who's very good at getting the sympathy of the referees. Replacing Bosh has been done by committee, with Battier and Udonis Haslem and with lesser results, Ronny Turiaf.

When the Heat return to practice Sunday, they won't even be writing in Bosh's name in pencil.

"I have to plan without him," said coach Erik Spoelstra.

Whether Miami can survive short-handed is really about two players. James and Wade at MVP level can cover up lots of warts. Spoelstra did a very solid job reprogramming Miami on the fly against Indiana, especially after the Heat fell behind 2-1. He shuffled his lineup and ordered everyone Not Named Wade Or James to constantly set screens and space the floor, which allowed those two to roam free.

When Haslem helped offensively in Game 4 against the Pacers, and Battier in 5, and Mike Miller in 6, Miami had just enough to supplement Wade and James. Essentially, Bosh's production was handled surprisingly well once Spoelstra and the Heat figured it out.

Nothing beats the real thing, however.

"He's a big part of our team," Wade said. "He's a really good rebounder and can create his own shots."

If that sounds like a plea for Bosh to heal up, it's because it is. As much as they seemed to enjoy tag-teaming the Pacers, Wade and James realize that, in the perfect equation, two doesn't beat three.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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