The Miami Heat didn’t know how things would go after losing Chris Bosh to blood clots. The All-Star big man, who is now reportedly in the midst of a battle with the team over his return, has been the anchor of Miami’s defense and a core part of their identity in the locker room. Bosh is an 11-time All-Star and two-time champion who simply could not be replaced.
So the Heat didn’t try to replace Bosh. Instead, after the team’s highest paid player went down in February, Miami responded by throwing its old strategy in the trash. This would be a different kind of team to reflect a different kind of personnel. Miami led by Bosh was a defensive-minded, slower unit tuned to fit a veteran roster.
Fast forward three months, and the younger, faster Heat are on the brink of an incredible playoff run. The team already dispatched the Hornets by completely dominating Game 7, and now they face a Raptors team that looked vulnerable against Indiana in the opening round. Bosh’s potential return, if anything, seems like it could be the thing to take Miami over the top.
Suddenly, one of the NBA’s biggest surprises in the second half of the regular season might have something even grander in store. These aren’t quite the Heat that you expected to be here in early May, but they might be equipped to surprise the basketball world this spring.
How did Miami turn a floundering season and a devastating injury into a chance at the NBA Finals? A combination of smart adjustments and an coalescing mix of youth and veteran talent. Even if Bosh doesn’t return, the Heat look dangerous this spring.
Let’s get running and release the Dragic
Without Bosh, the Heat were never going to be as strong defensively as they were with him. Prior to his blood clot issues, Miami was sixth in defensive efficiency, allowing just 100.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Defense was how the Heat planned on beating you. Only the Utah Jazz, another defensive-minded team, played at a slower pace.
However, coach Erik Spoelstra quickly bailed on that plan without Bosh. Spoelstra recognized that his roster without Bosh was much better suited to embrace an offensive strategy and get out running more often. Instead of buckling down and hoping the defense could tread water without Bosh, the Heat decided to become an entirely different team.
Asking that of the players was not without risk. “When Chris went down, we really had no idea how we were going to play or what kind of style we were going to play,” veteran forward Luol Deng said in mid-March.
But the results have been simply amazing. Miami improved significantly after Bosh’s injury, becoming so much better on the offensive end that it offset the losses on defense. The Heat’s net rating improved from plus-0.8 points per 100 possessions to plus-5.8 points per 100 over the final 29 games without Bosh, per NBA.com. Several players have played key roles in that improvement.
A big part of this change stems from pace, where the Heat went from 29th in the league to 19th after Bosh’s injury. Nobody benefitted more from that than Goran Dragic, who has taken advantage of his chances to push the ball and pressure defenses. Dragic was acquired by Miami from the Suns to be an All-Star. Without Bosh, he finally looked the part.Dragic isn’t the only player to benefit from the faster pace, either. The strategy has been huge for three of the team’s young building blocks.
Dawn of Justise (and Hassan and Josh)
It took Batman and Superman fighting to create the Justice League. It took another unfortunate circumstance — Bosh’s injury — to unleash Justise upon the league. With that injury and the change in strategy, the team’s first-round pick, Justise Winslow, was one of the key players to emerge. The others, big man Hassan Whiteside and guard Josh Richardson, help piece together where all this improvement came from.
Dragic’s return to form was huge, but it’s only turned Miami into a dangerous team when paired with the breakouts of Winslow, Whiteside and Richardson. These are the four players who have transformed the Heat beyond their heart and soul (Dwyane Wade). This team already had players who knew how to win. It just needed some others with the legs to help execute that plan.
Whiteside in particular has been a game-changer for Miami. In 28 regular-season games after Bosh went down, the 26-year-old averaged 17.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. The extra playing time resulting from Bosh’s absence has given Whiteside a chance to show that he’s one of the game’s top bigs himself.
The big man also helped turn around an unusual trend that saw the Heat perform better defensively with him out of the lineup. In the series against Charlotte, Whiteside was without peers who could match his combination of size and length. The Heat outscored the Hornets by 15.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Without him, that number dropped to 2.6 points per 100, per NBA.com.
Winslow and Richardson weren’t quite as dominant in the first round, at times struggling to match up against the likes of Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, but they’re playing much larger roles than they did in the first half of the season. Their defense has been especially important to helping Miami maintain solid defense on the perimeter, which has helped lessen the impact of Bosh’s absence on that end.
The stalwart foundation
Youth has taken Miami to a level it didn’t know it had. But those young players are building upon a core established by those who have been around the block before. Even without Bosh, the Heat boast an impressive veteran presence that helps explain why they were so comfortable after falling behind 3-2 to Charlotte.
It all starts with Wade, who showed against the Hornets that there’s still some life left in those legs. Even at age 34, Wade pressured and penetrated Charlotte’s defense with ease at times. And even after the Hornets adjusted and tightened up the paint in the middle of the series, Wade responded with some remarkable last-minute play. Clutch might be a hard thing to quantify, but there’s no doubt you want guys like Wade on your side as the clock winds down.
In the first round, Wade averaged 19 points, 5.4 rebounds and five assists per game. He shot 47 percent from the field and hit a pair of huge three-pointers in Game 6 after shooting 7-of-44 from beyond the arc during the regular season.
There are several other veterans, too. Luol Deng, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson are all former All-Stars playing crucial roles. Deng was especially impressive against Charlotte, averaging 15.2 points on 48 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game. It’s as good a stretch as we’ve seen from Deng in a while. Josh McRoberts, Gerald Green and Beno Udrih fill out the roster with other experienced options.
That gives the Heat a strong combination of youth and veterans. Whiteside, Winslow and Richardson are integral to giving Miami the legs to win these seven-game series. But the veteran poise of players like Deng and Johnson, not to mention the ceaseless brilliance of Wade, add important elements. And with a great coach like Spoelstra orchestrating it all, Miami should not be dismissed.
* * *
There’s no doubt the road to the Finals will be challenging for Miami. The Raptors may have had some trouble finishing off the Pacers, but they have homecourt advantage and won 56 games during the regular season. They’re going to be a tough out.
The same can obviously be said for LeBron James and the Cavaliers, especially given the history between James and the Heat. A series between these two would be a lot of fun. Miami won two of the three regular season meetings with Cleveland, including a 122-101 beatdown on March 19. There’s no opponent that looks unbeatable until at least the Finals, as difficult as the Cavs will be. The possible addition of Bosh, even if a limited role, could be the final piece. But this team looks dangerous either way.
Just three months ago, the Heat seemed close to waving the white flag. Now there’s a very real chance that they find themselves winning the Eastern Conference.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.