SAN ANTONIO – When LeBron James wasn’t talking about cramps in the two days before Game 2 of The 2014 Finals, he was explaining why he considers himself the “easiest target in sports.” (Short answer: Nonstop media coverage and inflated expectations since he’s been 15 years old.)
That led to a natural follow-up question Sunday night for Chris Bosh, James’ teammate with the Miami Heat. After all Bosh, even in flattering coverage, ranks third among the Heat’s Big 3. In the snarkier accounts, or Shaq‘s occasional wise-guy remarks, he’s the Fredo of this particular Corleone crew behind James and Dwyane Wade.
“I’m probably the second [easiest target],” Bosh said after Miami’s 98-96 victory to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1. The 6-foot-11 forward scored 18 points and, despite his meager rebound total of three, was active enough defensively that he and Rashard Lewis outscored Spurs big men Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter by a combined 32-20. Spot San Antonio Boris Diaw off the bench, along with the Heat’s Chris Andersen, and Miami still had the edge, 35-27.
Then there was Bosh late. He took a pass from James in the right corner for a 3-pointer with 1:18 left, turning a 1-point lead into a 2-point advantage. On Miami’s last offensive possession, it was Bosh who drove inside, drawing the defense and dishing to Wade for a dagger layup to make it 98-93 with 9.4 seconds left.
And sure enough, Bosh was talking about validation afterward. Because after years as Toronto’s cornerstone and go-to guy, he is and remains third on this team. He’s the butt of social media jokes, a source of frustration for the Heat fans with paper-thin loyalty and just sensitive enough to process all the noise.
“I think validating yourself is a constant process,” Bosh said, before adding, “I really let that go a long time ago. I don’t care about those things. I focus on the game and what we’re supposed to do with it. We have a chance to compete for another championship. That’s all that matters to me now.”
James was the Heat’s MVP in Game 2, cramp-free and in the zone with his outside shot. But Bosh got an MIP shout-out from their coach, Erik Spoelstra.
“Look, he’s arguably our most important player,” Spoelstra said.
In the moment, the Miami coach was lapsing into what we’ll call a white lie. But he did so out of appreciation, not just of what Bosh provides but for what he endures.
“If he’s not getting the normal opportunities, and he’s not scoring or doesn’t have big rebound numbers, it seems from the outside everybody is so critical about his game,” Spoelstra said. “But for us, he has a lot on his plate.
“He’s a two-way player on both ends of the court. he has to facilitate and space the floor, and he has to find opportunities to be aggressive. It’s a tough balance. He’s versatile enough and important enough for us that he’s been able to find that.”
Bosh is more introspective than most, too, so he’ll occasionally give his critics ammo by questioning his own game or analyzing his own career. When he needs to do more, as in the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, Bosh often will be the first to suggest it.
The thing is, he did do it as the Pacers series stretched on. And he was there in the clutch Sunday against San Antonio, despite missing an identical shot on Miami’s previous possession.
James didn’t hesitate, once Duncan “peeked” at him as he attacked the lane, to pass to Bosh in the corner. It was a flashback not just to the last time down court but to the end of Game 5 of the East finals in Indianapolis. Down two, James opted not to seek a possible foul for free throws to tie. He dished to Bosh to win – only Bosh missed. Everyone had to traipse back to south Florida for a winner in the series.
“To have that trust from my teammates, they know when I got the ball, I’m going to make the right play,” James said. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to go in. Doesn’t mean it’s going to result in a win, but they believe in my ability.”
Said Bosh: “Just me knowing how LeBron is, you always have to be poised and ready to shoot the basketball. He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with. … Even if he is hot, he’ll still hit you if you’re wide open.”
It’s gone this way for most of their four seasons together: James shouldering the biggest load, Wade reminding and sometimes surprising people that his knees and game aren’t dead yet, and Bosh coming through at the 11th hour, providing just enough to a) earn his keep or b) push the Heat over the top.
In a sense, Bosh has been resilient just like they have as a group – Miami has lost playoff games but has gone 47 now without losing two in a row. It has fired back from defeats with victories 13 consecutive times. Oh, and they’re 5-0 in series in the Big 3 era after dropping Game 1.
“Everything plays a role in it,” Bosh said, “Yeah, you do have a healthy dose of fear and it makes you focus more, makes you play better, play harder. When your back is against the wall, it’s a very unique feeling.”
He could have said “familiar.” The next round of criticism is just around the corner. Bosh likes it when he can be James’ target. Others’, he’s not interested in at all.
“I don’t really care about the criticism,” he said. “If it doesn’t help me, then I don’t listen to it. … Everybody gets criticized, and I understand that. I’m not immune to it. To know that that’s happened before, I’m not the first, I won’t be the last. This team won’t be the first or the last. Each guy gets picked on.
“But I think it makes you stronger as a person and I believe in my craft. I work hard at my game and that’s all that matter.”
They’ll be saying especially nasty things about Bosh in San Antonio for the next couple days. He can smile while he doesn’t care about that.