MIAMI — In the wake of the what he called the “ultimate pain and failure,” Miami Heat Erik Spolestra challenged all involved to reinvent themselves, have a growth mindset and put the team first.
He placed that request with the players and also his coaching staff after the Heat fell in The Finals to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. That forced guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to do some self-examination and find a weakness and turn it into a strength or find something they hadn’t done much of and turn into a staple.
For James, it was about asserting himself and becoming the leader of this crew. For Wade, it was about learning how to defer to another superstar (or two, when needed), something foreign to his system as the lone superstar here before James and Bosh showed up. And for Bosh, it became about expanding his game and becoming the “positionless” big man Spoelstra needed for this team to play to its strengths.
Perhaps no one’s sacrifice has been greater than Bosh’s. He’s had to abandon the conventional low-post construct most NBA big men operate in and learn how to play center while operating from the 3-point line in, a change that has come gradually over the past two seasons. He’s not a 3-point specialist by any stretch as he made just 21 this season and shot just 28 percent. But he’s capable of being a threat from that distance if the Heat need him to be. He shot 54 percent from deep during the Heat’s championship run last season.
“That’s where he becomes positionless,” Spoelstra said. “Is he a [four] or a [five]. As long he’s doing the things that help us be versatile, that’s what makes him so special and unique to us, his versatility. And if you don’t have a player such as Chris, with his versatility …”
Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks, who have to figure out a way to deal with three of the league’s most versatile players tonight in Game 2 of their first round playoff series.
They couldn’t handle any of them in Game 1. But Bosh was a particularly tough matchup because he stretched the floor early with two 3-pointers, drawing Bucks rim protector Larry Sanders away from his comfort zone and opening up the floor for James and Wade to operate.
Bosh might not make another 3-pointer in Game 2 tonight or the entire series, for that matter. And that’s fine with Spoelstra, who insists that the fact that Bosh has polished that part of his game and can use it is far more important than worrying about whether he actually utilizes that skill.
“Everybody wants to put him in a box,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody wanted to make him a low-post, back-in guy to give us a post/paint presence. He can do that. But if you only have him do that, you can limit him. He does so many other things. And the other things he has done for us allows us to play our game. But ironically, those are often the things he will be criticized for. But without him, sometimes it’s tough to do what we do.”
Bosh is well aware of the critics and their often savage reviews of his game. In Toronto, he was a stretch four who had to serve as his team’s only true post presence and did so to the tune of 24 points and 11 rebounds in his final season with the Raptors. But Bosh has had to come to grips with the fact that his game is greater when he expands it beyond the conventional.
“It’s just knowing that it’s not necessarily what this team needs me to do,” Bosh said. “I know it’s unorthodox for people to really see what type of player I am and what they needed me to be here. You have to really be open-minded. You see a big and they want to put you in a box. A guy might outweigh you by 50 or 60 pounds and you still have to back him down and be effective. If the team doesn’t need me to do that I’m not going to waste my time trying to bang dudes and shoot turnaround jumpers and hook shots all night. It’s going to be there sometimes, but I’m just going to be all over the court. And because of that I think I’ve become a much better player.”
Bosh knows he could have stuck around in Toronto or even gone somewhere else and put up the sort of numbers he did in his Raptors days. He could be the centerpiece of a team and probably play exclusively in whatever comfort zone he wanted to. He’s also certain that he wouldn’t be the player he has become since coming here.
“To truly be a really good player, the things you do well, you have to do them [well] in the playoffs during crunch time situations, when it’s the toughest,” he said. “I’ve noticed since I’ve been here that’s how you become a really good player, a great player. I’ve gained a lot of respect for guys who have done that over and over in the past, guys who have not necessarily been in the superstar role. Being in the mainstream you always think it was just Shaq and Kobe [Bryant]or [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen. But those other guys had to perform and play well, too. It takes a team to win a championship, and just playing on that elite, high level is really amazing.”
And if that means Bosh has to be reclassified again, so be it.
“I’ll be whatever the team needs,” he said and then smiled. “Stretch five, stretch four, back to the basket, face up, catch and go. I’m working to do it all.”
The Heat’s championship plans this season depend on exactly that.