TrueHoop: Ray Allen

The Miami Heat's championship appeal

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
12:21
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
LeBron James
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsLeBron James: Two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP -- and compelling prime-time antihero.
Even those who find pleasure in witnessing defeat owe a debt of gratitude to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, because never has the prospect of individual and team failure been so compelling to so many. The Heat won a second consecutive title on Thursday night, and James was the undisputed star, but the detractors didn’t lose. They never do with the Heat.

For a third straight spring, the Heat found a way to engage every segment of basketball fans on the planet. Viewers who gravitate to glossy storylines get their prestige drama starring James. As a nation, we’ve come to embrace an antihero driving the plot when we watch a prime-time series, and James’ collection of contradictions serves us in that capacity.

Basketball junkies see James as a visionary, a player that shatters every classification. He’s rendered the power-finesse axis obsolete and can conform his game to any scheme, tempo or situation. Junkies love to watch how James will ply his craft on a given possession, because the options are limitless. Thanks in large part to James, the team has been a leader in redefining positions, another peccadillo of the junkie.

Those who need a designated villain found one in James, because if you’re looking to render judgment on someone based on the five to 10 worst moments of his public life, then James is your guy. Pro sports has never featured a team that’s a more satisfying foil than the Heat for those who put contempt for a world-class athlete before appreciation.

In that same spirit, purists who want the boundaries of the game fixed in tradition loathe the Heat as the barbarians at the gate, a team etched by young stars instead of wise men. The Heat were boastful before they ever built anything, and play without a traditional post presence and sometimes without even a point guard.

Front-runners who like a winner have a team that joins the pantheon of NBA champions with back-to-back titles, and a player almost unanimously regarded as the world’s best. So do those who check in on the NBA in search of an athletic exhibition or the most alluring talent show.

Over the past three years, the Heat have found the sweet spot that lies at the center of the fan universe. This is an achievement, because rarely does a product penetrate every corner of the market, meet every need and appeal to almost every point on the emotional spectrum. The Heat manage to produce a heightened sense of intensity for the viewer, even when they lack intensity themselves. In the process, the Heat have displaced the Los Angeles Lakers as the league’s most indispensable team and James is now the NBA’s most important player.

This would be true with or without a second championship, but another banner means the Heat have something lasting that defines them apart from all the cultural markers. Legacies, narratives, symbolism and mythology are easily revised, but rings aren’t subject to revision. They’re placed in shadowboxes, protected from the noise.

The second title didn’t come as easy as the first, but that’s because the game is hard, no matter how diligent the preparation, or how easy James makes it appear at times, or how many consecutive wins the Heat run off in February and March.

We tend to forget this when we kill a team or player for a lack of effort, assertiveness or execution. It’s not just the hysterics who chirp. Almost all of us participate, even if our critiques are shrouded in the language of rational analysis. We show our work and couch our statements with qualifiers, but we still have trouble remembering that the game is hard is the most common reason for failure, even for James and the Heat.

Attacking the basket is hard when the defense’s sole mission is to deny access to the paint. Drawing contact is hard, because accelerating at full speed then voluntarily initiating a collision with another very big guy moving just as fast is traumatic.

It’s impossibly hard to backpedal at full speed from the paint to a spot behind the 3-point arc in the far corner without looking down while your team is down to its final seconds of life in an elimination Game 6, and that’s before being asked to catch a ball while your momentum is sending you backwards, then set your feet before rising up for a pinpoint-accurate shot against a fast-approaching person with his arms in the air blocking your view of the target.

Doing it night in and night out for nine months is hard. The talent, money, fame and perks don’t change what a player’s body can tolerate physically or the natural limitations of his skill set. Nobody is at his best all the time. Performance isn’t consistent, which is why we have highlights.

Somewhere along the way, the Heat’s desire to come together as a team was mistaken for a claim that it isn’t hard. That misperception was put to rest during the final two games in Miami. The Heat and James commanded our attention for the entire season, but in the end it was all about the work.

3-pointers, pick-and-roll important in Finals

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
12:20
PM ET
By ESPN Statistics & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
The Spurs and Heat both ranked in the top five in 3-point shooting and scoring off the pick-and-roll this season. Tony Parker has the most points on pick-and-roll plays this postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full with slowing down the Miami Heat and their quest for a second consecutive championship. Despite the challenge of limiting LeBron James and guarding a bunch of long-range shooters, San Antonio has a few matchup advantages to exploit.

The Heat and Spurs ranked among the top five teams in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, with Miami coming in second behind the Warriors.

The strong shooting from both teams has continued in the playoffs, with the Spurs and Heat ranking second and third, respectively, in 3-point shooting during the postseason.

The corner 3

The corner 3-point shot has become a staple of the Heat and Spurs. Miami made 309 corner 3-pointers this season, 35 more than the next closest team, while the Spurs ranked third with 261 during the regular season. The Spurs are shooting a slightly better percentage on corner 3-pointers in the playoffs, but Miami has made 13 more field goals from that spot on the floor.

Ray Allen (15), Shane Battier (11) and Norris Cole (7) have 33 of the Heat’s 48 corner 3-point field goals this postseason. Allen’s 15 corner 3-pointers are tied with Quincy Pondexter for the most of any player in the playoffs.

Pick-and-roll

Pick-and-roll plays will be important for both teams in this series as well. The Spurs and Heat are first and second in the postseason in points per game on pick-and-roll plays, averaging 38.4 and 36.6 points per game, respectively. However, the Heat are second in postseason defensive efficiency against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.80 points per play. The Heat cause turnovers on 16.9 percent of their opponents’ pick-and-roll possessions in the playoffs, leading all teams.

The Heat haven’t faced a guard similar to Tony Parker in the postseason. Parker is responsible for nearly 62 percent of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense. This postseason, Parker has the most total points on pick-and-roll plays with 152 and the second most points per game off the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, Parker’s 562 pick-and-roll points were second to Damian Lillard’s 629.

Can the Spurs stop LeBron?

The Spurs have done a great job of taking away their opponents' best options in the playoffs.

Tiago Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to 15-of-48 (31.3 percent) shooting in eight games.

Danny Green was asked to guard Stephen Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from the 3-point line.

But can the Spurs stop LeBron James? Kawhi Leonard has played against James just once in his career, as a rookie Jan. 17, 2012. James was 9-of-14 from the floor with 20 points with Leonard as the primary defender. This postseason, the Spurs have allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court. That’s the second-lowest total, behind Tyson Chandler, for any player averaging at least 25 minutes a game this postseason.

Sunny Saini and Evan Kaplan contributed to this post

A few thoughts about Roy Hibbert

May, 23, 2013
5/23/13
12:29
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Mornings like these make the NBA so much fun, especially when the debate touches on concrete strategy rather than abstractions.

On the surface, whether Pacers coach Frank Vogel should have left Roy Hibbert on the floor during crucial, late-game defensive possessions is a binary decision, but several factors govern Vogel's strategy in that situation. Although I'm strongly with the majority opinion that says when defensive possessions matter most you have your best defenders on the floor, the doubts implicitly expressed by Vogel when he left his 7-foot-2 center on the sideline must also be addressed.

If Vogel decides to not match down to the Heat's smaller lineup, here are a few fun counterfactual strategies to consider -- some more sensible than others.
  • With 2.2 seconds left, an NBA defense is immune from a defensive 3-second call and can effectively zone up against any play. A zone defense is vulnerable to all kinds of hazards, open shots most prominent among them, because the goal is to guard space rather than individuals. Not having a specific guy tasked with defending specific scorers is risky, especially if one of those scorers is named LeBron James. But the Pacers are uniquely equipped to run a matchup zone for 2.2 seconds. Place Hibbert inside the circle, match up Paul George on James and zone the back side of the floor. The Pacers have some of the most capable, long-armed gap defenders in basketball and close space on shooters better than any team in the league. Zoning up would take away just about anything at the rim, though it would leave the Pacers vulnerable to a potential midrange shot from Chris Bosh -- a pretty reasonable trade-off, if not an ideal one.
  • Too dangerous, especially since the most prolific long-distance shooter in history is licking his chops on the weak side? Then how about not guarding the inbounder, Shane Battier, leaving Hibbert underneath and going with a man-to-man defense on the other four Miami players? It's a tough call, because ball pressure is essential and, as every coach at every level preaches, somebody must account for the inbounder once the ball is put in play. But let's replay the possession with Battier passing the ball in to James as he did Wednesday night. James is a willing passer and could conceivably return the ball to Battier, who stands 30 feet from the basket, with 1-point-whatever seconds remaining on the clock. It's safe to say that's a shot the Pacers can live with.
  • If you're not feeling the zone strategy and you also believe, as Vogel did, that Hibbert's lack of mobility was too much of a liability against a fast-moving, screen-heavy set with multiple shooters on the floor, then consider assigning Hibbert to cover the inbound pass. Approximately 2.5 million people were in Miami-Dade last night. If you asked Battier to list in descending order those he'd least like to see standing in front of him as he prepared to throw the ball inbounds to a Heat teammate, it's a good bet Hibbert would have been at the top of that list. The best use of Hibbert is still near the basket, but if he makes you nervous at the top of the circle when you know a back screen for Bosh is on the way, why not put him to some use by allowing him to disrupt an inbound pass then race after the ball for a possible block from behind?
  • Let Hibbert sink or swim. Those defending Vogel's decision have a point -- a down screen for Bosh is a tough switch for Hibbert. But there are creative ways to play it: (1) Have Lance Stephenson switch on to Bosh, as he did. (2) Have Hibbert drop immediately to the paint. (3) Have David West, who was guarding the inbounds pass, switch on to Allen as he sprinted to the sideline since he was effectively there. Again, Battier would be the open man, but at 30 feet or so.

The Pacers outlasted their rivals in the East because they brought length, speed and versatility to the defensive end and had the rim protection provided by Hibbert. For nearly 100 games, Vogel has stayed true to that formula, but he had a crisis of faith when it mattered most. On Wednesday night, perfect defense was the enemy of the good defense.

It didn't help that his best man defender, George, got annihilated so quickly and absolutely. Had Hibbert been standing at the rim, it's easy to imagine James shuttling a pass to Bosh for the duck-in or kicking the ball out to another shooter. Credit James for presenting that kind of challenge. For years, critics have killed him for not wanting to take the last shot, but ask yourself this:

If James were an I'm-shooting-at-all-cost player, would Vogel have been so concerned about the supporting cast that he would leave his rim protector on the bench out of fear of an open shooter?

What's on the line Wednesday night

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
11:51
AM ET
By Gregg Found, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
The Lakers have a chance to move as high as the 7 seed, or miss the playoffs completely.

Wednesday is the final day of the NBA regular season, and there’s no shortage of reasons to tune in. There are still playoff spots to be clinched, seeds to be determined and individual honors to be claimed.

Wild West Playoff Picture
Here’s how much we know for sure in the Western Conference entering Wednesday. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the 1 seed, and the San Antonio Spurs are No. 2. That’s it.

The Denver Nuggets have the inside track for the 3 seed. They’ll lock it down with a home win over the Phoenix Suns, or if the Los Angeles Clippers lose what could be the Kings’ final game in Sacramento. If Denver loses and the Clippers win, the Clippers take the third slot.

The worst the Nuggets or Clippers could do is the 4 seed and a First Round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, but who hosts the first game of that series is still to be decided.

If Memphis, currently with the same record as the Clippers, ends with a better record, it will have home-court advantage of the series, despite being seeded lower.

From six on down, it gets even more convoluted. If the Houston Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 ET, ESPN) and the Golden State Warriors lose to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets knock the Warriors out of the 6 seed.

The Warriors can’t fall any lower than seventh, but Houston could potentially fall as low as eighth. If the Lakers beat the Rockets, the Lakers take the 7 seed, knocking Houston to eighth.

If the Lakers lose to the Rockets, it opens the window for the Utah Jazz to get the final playoff spot with a win over the Grizzlies (8 ET, ESPN).


East is Much Simpler
If the Western Conference scenarios were too confusing, you might like the Eastern Conference much better.

Six of the eight playoff seeds are already locked in. The Chicago Bulls hold the 5 seed, and will hold onto it with either a home win over the Washington Wizards, or an Atlanta Hawks road loss to the New York Knicks.

Of course, with the 5 seed comes a potential Conference Semifinals matchup with the Miami Heat.

Individual Honors on the Line
The biggest head-to-head battle Wednesday night seemed to be Kevin Durant chasing Carmelo Anthony for the scoring title, but news that Durant will not play means that Anthony becomes the second Knicks player to win a scoring title, joining Bernard King.

Stephen Curry
Curry
But there is still history to be made. Golden State’s Stephen Curry enters Wednesday one 3-pointer behind Ray Allen’s NBA record of 269 in a single season, set in 2005-06.

Curry is averaging 3.5 3-pointers this season, meaning the odds are in his favor to break the record.

With Durant not playing, it also means Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard will likely lead the NBA in total minutes. He’d be just the third rookie in NBA history to lead the league in minutes played. The other two are Wilt Chamberlain (in 1959-60) and Elvin Hayes (1968-69).

Kevin Martin is super efficient

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
11:29
AM ET
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE/Getty ImagesKevin Martin’s offensive efficiency this season is off the charts.
Kevin Martin has been the most efficient scorer in the NBA this season. Martin leads the league in points per play of the 137 players with at least 100 plays, according to Synergy Sports.

Another way to prove Martin has been the most efficient scorer in the NBA this season is his true shooting percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-pointers and free throws. In that regard, Martin ranks first in the league among players with at least 250 minutes.

WHY HAS MARTIN BEEN SO EFFICIENT?

He doesn’t have to create his own offense as often this season.

Martin is playing off the ball more this season alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as compared to last season when he had the ball in his hands more often. His usage percentage -– an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he’s on the floor -- is 22.3, his lowest since 2005-06, his sophomore campaign with the Sacramento Kings.

Martin is second in the NBA this season in catch-and-shoot points (behind O.J. Mayo). He’s shooting 52.1 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and has a 75 effective field-goal percentage on those shots.

Now that he isn’t the focal point of his team’s offense, Martin is able to let his offense come to him. As a result, his shooting numbers have blossomed in Oklahoma City.

In 2011-12, Martin shot just 34.9 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which ranked 134th of the 175 players with at least 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers. Catch-and-shoot accounted for 37.5 percent of his jump shots last season, while it accounts for 51.1 percent this season.

Need more evidence that Martin isn’t nearly as ball-dominant anymore? This season, 31.4 percent of his plays are spot-up, as compared to 19.3 percent last season. Isolation accounted for 22.4 percent of his plays last season, while that number is down to 17.9 percent this season.

THUNDER ARE BETTER WITH MARTIN

The Thunder have been a much better team with Martin on the court. They're scoring 19.9 more points per 48 minutes than they are with Martin on the bench. They're shooting better, especially from beyond the arc, and getting to the free-throw line more than twice as often with Martin on the floor.

How impressive is Martin’s season thus far? Let’s put it in perspective:

• Only one player in NBA history has had a true shooting percentage higher than Martin’s current 70.2 percentage (Tyson Chandler – 70.8 last season).

• Martin currently averages 17.6 points per game with a 48.7 field-goal percentage and 53.6 3-point percentage. Nobody in NBA history has finished a season with those numbers. Detlef Schrempf (in 1994-95) is the only player to average at least 15 points per game with a 45 field-goal percentage and 50 3-point percentage.

• Thus far, Martin has a career high in field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free-throw percentage and offensive rating this season.

If Martin continues on this pace of super offensive efficiency, the Thunder won’t regret trading Harden for him.


Statistical support for this story from NBA.com

Heat start out shooting hot

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
11:59
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Last season, the Miami Heat took down the defending champion on opening night by beating the Dallas Mavericks.

They made sure the Boston Celtics would not do the same to them in 2012-13.

The Heat were in can't-miss mode Tuesday, averaging 1.25 points per possession, the second-best average of any team in a season opener in the past five seasons.

Here’s a summary of the statistical highlights from their win.

Stat of the Game
The Heat shot 54.4 percent from the field in the win. Last season, the Celtics allowed only two teams to shoot 54 percent or better from the field -- the Heat and the New York Knicks.

The 120 points by the Heat are tied for the second most the Celtics have allowed in a regular-season game since Kevin Garnett joined the team in 2007.

The only team to score more was the Denver Nuggets, who tallied 124 in February 2008.

Still streaking
LeBron James extended his streak of scoring at least 20 points against the Celtics to 24 straight regular-season games, which he was able to do prior to leaving with leg cramps.

Some of Ray Allen's long-distance effectiveness (he was 4-for-6 from 15-plus feet in his Heat debut) might have rubbed off on James.

James was 6-for-9 on shots from 15 feet and beyond, his second-highest shooting percentage from that distance in any game since the start of last season.

James attempted nine of his 16 shots from beyond that distance, which is unusual for him. He attempted a higher percentage from the outside only once in last season’s playoffs.

Milestone for Wade
Dwyane Wade was the star on this night, surpassing the 15,000-point mark. The Elias Sports Bureau tells us that he’s the sixth-fastest guard to reach 15,000 (597 games).

The record is held by Michael Jordan, who reached 15,000 in only 460 games.

One oddity from this contest: The Heat, who won by 13, outscored the Celtics by 19 points in the 13 minutes in which Wade was out of the game.

Double figures in defeat
Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo reached double digits in assists for the 25th straight regular-season game.

Only two players have had longer streaks. Magic Johnson had a 46-gamer in 1983-84 that ranks best all-time.

John Stockton holds the next four spots on that list, and then Rondo follows, with his streak ranking sixth.

Golden Tickets: 10 you don't want to miss

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
1:29
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
The ultimate fantasy parlor game for the hardcore NBA fan:

All expenses paid from your doorstep to an NBA arena 10 times during the 2012-13 season. First class on your preference of air carrier (that means double qualifying miles!) and the penthouse suite at the hotel of your choosing. Once you're at the venue, you can sit wherever you like.

Only two disclaimers: You can't attend a repeat matchup (for instance, only one of the two Heat-Thunder games) and you can visit a specific home floor only twice (for instance, no more than two Lakers home games at Staples Center).

Which 10 games do you want?

My 10, in chronological order:

Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Hornets, Nov. 16

You never need an excuse to drop into New Orleans, but Anthony Davis' arrival warrants a visit.

Davis projects as one of the best defensive players of his generation. A home date against an offensive juggernaut like the Thunder will be Davis' first graduate-level exam in the defensive arts. We'll be waiting for that first switch when Davis -- as sound a perimeter defender as big men come -- finds himself face-to-face with Kevin Durant.

New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets, Dec. 11

The two teams launch the season against one another on Nov. 1, but opening games, even ones filled with anticipation, are often nothing more than throat clearing by both clubs. But six weeks into the season, the Knicks and Nets will have forged an identity and sculpted systems (or at least tried to). And any intrigue that materialized in the first matchup will resurface in Round 2.

Throughout its history, Brooklyn has traditionally existed as a cultural, demographic and rhythmic counterpart to Manhattan. In 2012, the borough is as healthy as ever. Can that vitality fuel a fan base and, if so, what are some of the collective features of those devotees? Will it resemble anything like New York's storied baseball rivalries of yore?

Houston Rockets at New York Knicks, Dec. 17

How many intriguing characters can you cram into a two-hour NBA drama on the league's most dramatic stage?

The cast starts with Jeremy Lin, who sparked nightly riots at Madison Square Garden during a glorious run in February and March. Then there's Carmelo Anthony who classified the offer sheet Lin signed with Houston as ridiculous and whom reports claim didn't want to play alongside Lin anyhow. Knicks owner James Dolan, whose favorable-unfavorable numbers among fans already hovered at congressional levels, further enraged the base by choosing an inopportune time to tighten the purse strings. Finally, the New York fans for whom a supernova performance from Lin would be every bit as wrenching as it would be exhilarating.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat, Dec. 25

As the clock ticked away on the Thunder's season in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, something sparked in Kevin Durant's eyes. His proximity to the Heat's celebration a few yards down the sideline was unbearable. Durant was no longer interested in marshaling a troop of upstarts whose athleticism could challenge the most polished outfits in the league. At that moment, he graduated to a title-or-bust guy.

That drive should propel the Thunder to a romp through their 2012-13 schedule. The Thunder won't be adding a new piece, unlike the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan returned and the team won 72 games, but Oklahoma City has a chance for a prolific season during which they lose only two or three times a month. The crescendo will start building on Christmas afternoon when the Heat arrive.

Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, Jan. 4

Angelenos don't share a lot of communal civic experiences, not even in sports. The baseball and hockey rivalries between the city and Orange County have never been meaningful; but last season the Lakers and Clippers developed something real.

The Lakers are still the gold standard in town, but, for the first time last season, the Clippers brought charisma and star power to the party. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the floor, the Clippers legitimately believe it's a fair fight and that was evident during the team's three-game season series. Don't expect any dip in the intensity in 2012-13.

Miami Heat at Indiana Pacers, Jan. 8

The Pacers have to feel like the Eastern Conference semifinals slipped through their fingers. By no means was it a choke job of any kind, but they had a 2-1 lead against a wounded Heat team that was imploding on the scene.

Indiana should put another quality squad on the floor in 2012-13, but windows don't stay open for very long in the NBA. That's especially true for teams like the Pacers that have to carefully choose the right moment in time and hit the target when those opportunities arise. The first rematch with the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (while we're choosing buildings, why not go to the best?) should open a few wounds between two teams that went at it intensely in May.

Miami Heat at Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 17

The Heat and Lakers were hyped to death in 2010-11 as two freight trains bearing down on each other toward a collision in the 2011 Finals.

That matchup never came to fruition and the lines on the Kobe-LeBron parallel have faded, but Heat-Lakers is still event basketball, especially at Staples Center. The colors on the floor pop beneath the creative lighting scheme while public address announcer Lawrence Tanter's baritone brings gravitas to the game. Since one Lakers home game is a must on the NBA tour, the choice is easy.

Miami Heat at Boston Celtics, Jan. 27

The climax of most homecomings usually occurs during opening introductions, then gradually fades over the course of the night unless the returnee goes unconscious or hits the dagger. Allen is certainly capable of draining a game winner, but his return trip to the TD Garden will be especially entertaining because, when it comes to crowd reaction, Boston fans are utterly unpredictable.

Allen could be greeted like a New England prince or could be taunted from the moment he sets foot in the arena two hours prior to tip for his ritualistic individual shootaround. It's anyone's guess.

New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets, March 13

Of all the returns to the scenes of the crimes, this figures to be the most compelling. You have to talk to a lot of NBA fans in Colorado before you find one who has nice things to say about Carmelo Anthony.

When Anthony walks into the Pepsi Center in Denver on March 13, 25 months will have passed since he'd cleaned out his locker. Time can heal, but in the case of the Nuggets faithful, you have to wonder if there's not a deep, pent-up resentment of Anthony. Of course, Anthony knows this, and that reaction will only incite him.

San Antonio at Oklahoma City, April 4

Provided the Spurs aren't locked into a seed and on their conservation diet, it's hard to experience anything other than top-shelf basketball when these two teams match up. Their Western Conference final proved to be the best chess match of the spring, and the stylistic contrasts should be every bit as pronounced in 2012-13.

Tim Duncan re-upped for three years with San Antonio, but as his career winds down, it's worth fully experiencing his final performances. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will always be indelible in our minds, but conjuring up mental images of Duncan's greatness when he retires will require a deeper plunge into our memories.

An inside look at the 2012-13 schedule

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
10:55
PM ET
By Micah Adams & Gregg Found
ESPN Stats & Info
No lockout means a return to normalcy in this year's schedule, where each team visits each city at least once and no team has to play a back-to-back-to-back. Last season, there were 40 back-to-back-to-backs.

Also this year, the regular season will start almost two months earlier (October 30) and will end nine days earlier (April 17) than last season.

SCHEDULE TIDBITS
• NBA Finals rematches: Christmas Day in Miami, Valentine's Day in Oklahoma City.

• Eastern Conference Finals rematches: October 30 in Miami, January 27 in Boston, March 18 in Boston, April 12 in Miami.

• Western Conference Finals rematches: November 1 in San Antonio, December 17 in Oklahoma City, March 11 in San Antonio, April 4 in Oklahoma City.

• Check out the notable "return" games this season in the chart at right, including Carmelo Anthony making his first trip to Denver this year. Because of the lockout-adjusted schedule, the Knicks did not play at the Nuggets last season.

• Teams appearing the most frequently on ESPN networks: Los Angeles Lakers (16), Miami Heat (15), Oklahoma City Thunder (15), New York Knicks (15), Los Angeles Clippers (14), Chicago Bulls (12), Boston Celtics (11).

DEFENDING THEIR TITLE
• The Heat and Celtics will play each other on Opening Night, October 30 in Miami. Not only will it be Ray Allen's first game against his most mates, LeBron James is 0-3 vs Celtics in season-openers (0-1 with the Heat in 2010, 0-2 with the Cavaliers in 2008 and 2009).

• Based on last season’s records, the toughest months of the season schedule-wise for the Heat will be the start of their season in October-November. But they'll follow that with their easiest month in December. And that includes a Christmas Day showdown with the Thunder.

• It hasn’t been easy for teams to defend their title recently. There’s been only one repeat champion in the last 10 years (Lakers 2009 and 2010). The last two teams defending their titles were bounced in the 1st Round (2012 Mavericks) and Conference Semifinals (2011 Lakers). The last time the Heat defended their title, in the 2006-07 season, they were dealt injuries to Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal and knocked out in the 1st Round.

Heat reload with aging ammunition

July, 11, 2012
7/11/12
1:21
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen
Getty Images
The Heat add shooters, but at the expense of youth, athleticism.

“Add old shooters with big-time reputations” is a fair summary of the Miami Heat’s offseason agenda thus far. Their two free-agent acquisitions, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, are 36 and 32 years old, respectively, and have spent a combined 30 seasons playing NBA basketball. Each has made some monster 3-point shots in the playoffs, an important résumé item for anyone planning to join Miami, especially now that LeBron James has established residence on the block.

But both players are also inarguably on the decline. In 2007, Allen and Lewis boasted PERs of more than 20. However Lewis’ PER hasn’t been above 15 (league average) in three seasons and Allen’s dipped below 15 for the first time in his career last season. The Heat's role players didn't exactly shine during the regular season, so these two are likely an upgrade, especially in the short term. But keep in mind that in 2011-12, Allen lost his starting spot to second-year guard Avery Bradley and battled bone spurs while Rashard Lewis has played in less than 60 percent of his team’s games over the past two years.

Sure they can still shoot, but can they play, especially in Miami’s frenetic defense, one that emphasizes speed and versatility?

Consider the case of James Jones, who played about eight minutes per game during the Heat’s playoff run and couldn’t even get in the game a few times. Jones is a lights-out shooter, a champion of All-Star weekend’s Three-Point Shootout. The dude can be trusted to make it rain when he’s open.

However Jones also fits poorly into the Heat’s defensive plan. He’s smart and aware, but really struggles on closeouts or to handle anyone with much strength inside or speed on the perimeter.

A player who worked out in a big way, Shane Battier, doesn’t shoot or even drive the ball much better than Jones and is hardly "quick," but he can guard a bunch of different positions and that allows the Heat to capitalize on their team speed. Even Mike Miller, who looked like he needed to be playing with a Life Alert (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) alarm on his wristband, could shuttle defensively between three positions, though not always with much effect.

Long story short: If you looked at the Heat bench during the playoffs, you’d see a bunch of players who can play only one position. Even though the Heat are wise to replace Miller's crumbling body and game, they are attempting to do so with players who, while more productive, have less malleable identities.

For all the experience and dead-eye shooting Allen and Lewis will bring to the Heat, defensive versatility is decidedly absent from their repertoires. That’s not to say they won’t be useful. Defending the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll gets a whole lot more complicated when Ray Allen is coming off a double screen on the other side of the court. Rashard Lewis gives coach Erik Spoelstra a second power forward, along with Shane Battier, who can pull a help defender all the way to the 3-point line, freeing up the middle for the Big Three.

Still, I question whether this is how a dynasty is built -- on players with deteriorating skills and rapidly approaching expiration dates.

Here's a short list of way-too-old players acquired by the Heat just in the past two years: Jerry Stackhouse, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mike Bibby, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier … you could even lump Eddie House in there.

The Heat skipped an opportunity to add valuable young talent -- Perry Jones, John Jenkins and Draymond Green come to mind -- in the draft, preferring to patch over holes rather than add to the team’s foundation. Now they have two more multiyear contracts with players whose defensive ability -- remember this has been Miami’s real strength on its back-to-back Finals visits -- is questionable already and will only become more so.

It should be mentioned that, if these two can stay healthy throughout the season and Lewis finds his stroke again, I have no idea how any team is going to guard the Heat. As our Tom Haberstroh mentioned on Twitter, “When Miami's Big 3 played with 2 non-PG shooters, they scored 127.4 points per 100 poss. All other Big 3 lineups? 109.8.”

That’s serious firepower, but only if the gunpowder stays dry.

Thinking one year at a time is generally bad strategy in the NBA; that’s how teams get stuck with bad contracts and fading players. Certainly right now, with each member of the Big Three still putting up big playoff numbers (combined 72.0 playoff PER), the strategy makes some sense. But Dwyane Wade, who underwent another knee operation this offseason, is on the tail end of his prime and we’ve already seen the benefits of developing young talent in what a crucial player Mario Chalmers has become.

Miami’s offseason moves suggest the franchise is living for its brilliant present. They’ll sort out the future, which always gets here before anyone expects, when it arrives. That’s the luxury of having James and Bosh, two superstars in the early stages of their prime years.

Why Ray Allen will succeed in Miami

July, 7, 2012
7/07/12
5:20
PM ET
By Ryan Feldman, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationRay Allen has agreed to join LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
With Ray Allen agreeing to sign with the Miami Heat, the NBA champions have added one of the greatest shooters in league history.

How will Allen fit in with the Heat?

Using Synergy Sports Technology to analyze Allen’s potential role with the Heat, it seems that he will fit in just fine.

OPEN JUMPERS FOR THE HEAT

The acquisitions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh created more open jumpers for the Heat. The year before the "Big 3" formed, only 41 percent of the Heat's catch-and-shoot jumpers were unguarded, the fifth-lowest percentage in the league. But that percentage has increased over the last two seasons.

During the 2010-11 season, 57 percent of the Heat’s catch-and-shoot jumpers were unguarded, the second-highest percentage in the NBA. And last season, 63 percent were unguarded, which ranked third.

Four of the Heat's current players that were in Miami prior to the "Big 3" era -- Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, James Jones and Udonis Haslem -- have received a significant increase in unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers over the last two seasons as compared to the season before the "Big 3" formed.

Only 30 percent of Wade's shots were unguarded in 2009-10, but that percentage doubled to 60 percent last season. Nearly four of every five Chalmers catch-and-shoot jumpers last season were unguarded.

LeBRON & BOSH MAKE TEAMMATES BETTER

Chalmers, Wade, Jones and Haslem saw an immediate improvement on catch-and-shoot jumpers after LeBron and Bosh arrived. The most dramatic improvement was Wade, who went from a 28 percent shooter on catch-and-shoot jumpers in 2009-10 to 37 percent in 2010-11.

RAY ALLEN CATCH-AND-SHOOT JUMPERS

Allen has improved his field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers over the last two seasons as compared to the previous three seasons. He shot less than 43 percent and ranked outside of the top 50 (among the 200+ players with at least 100 attempts) in each season from 2007-08 to 2009-10, but he shot 45 percent and ranked in the top 25 in each of the last two seasons.

Allen has also improved his field-goal percentage on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in each of the last two seasons. In 2009-10, he shot 42 percent on those shots. That percentage jumped to 51 percent in 2010-11 and 52 percent last season, which ranked sixth of the 68 players with at least 100 attempts.

Over the last few years, Allen has been left open more often on catch-and-shoot jumpers. In 2005-06, only 31 percent of those shots were unguarded. That percentage increased in each of the next three seasons. In 2010-11, he was left open on 49 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers, and last season 53 percent of those attempts were unguarded.

CONCLUSION

The Heat have had more open jumpers since LeBron and Bosh came to Miami. And the Heat’s most prominent shooters that were in Miami prior to the “Big 3” era became better shooters after LeBron and Bosh arrived. Allen was just as good of a shooter (if not better) last season than he was a few years ago. Part of this is because Allen has been left open more over the last two seasons.

If the pattern continues, expect Allen to receive even more open jumpers in Miami.

After loss, free agency could end Celtics era

June, 10, 2012
6/10/12
4:18
PM ET
By Justin Page, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
The Boston Celtics fell short of the NBA Finals for the second straight season, bowing out to the Miami Heat in back-to-back seasons. With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen entering free agency, is this the end of an era in Boston?

Possible players on the move
Garnett is an unrestricted free agent after making $21.2 million this season. He turned 36 last month, but was the key for the Celtics on both ends of the court this postseason.

In the 737 minutes he was on the court in the playoffs, the Celtics outscored opponents by 138 points. They were outscored by 118 points in the 238 minutes he was off the floor. That wasn’t a fluke, as the Celtics were +267 with Garnett on the floor during the regular season compared to -101 with him on the bench.

Allen is also an unrestricted free agent this summer and will turn 37 years old in July. He wasn’t as productive in the playoffs this year as he was the past four years. He averaged nearly 17 points in 39 minutes per game from 2008-11, but in 2012 those numbers declined by six points and five minutes.

Brandon Bass, who just finished his first season with the Celtics, has a $4 million player option for next season. Bass set career highs this season, averaging 32 minutes, 13 points and six rebounds per game.

Even if they have played their last game together, Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen have already cemented their legacy in Boston. This is the fourth memorable era in Celtics history.

1957-69
Red Auerbach failed to make the NBA Finals during his first six years as head coach of the Celtics, but Bill Russell’s arrival for the 1956-57 season was the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. The Celtics went on to capture 11 championships during Russell’s 13-year career.

1972-76
After Russell’s retirement in 1969, the Celtics missed the playoffs in 1970 and 1971, but it wasn’t long before they were back on top again.

John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, and Jo Jo White helped lead Boston to titles in 1974 and 1976. The Celtics also made it to the Conference Finals in 1972, 1973 and 1975.

1980-92
Boston was eliminated in the Conference Semifinals in 1977 and missed the playoffs entirely the next two seasons, but Larry Bird landed in Boston for the 1979-80 season and the rest was history.

The Celtics made five NBA Finals appearances and won three titles during Bird’s 13-year career, which ended in 1992 with a 4-games-to-3 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Semifinals.

2008-12
After experiencing a 21-season championship drought, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen guided the Celtics to a title during their first season together in 2008.

Garnett missed the playoffs the following year due to injury and the Celtics lost in the Conference Semifinals, but Boston made it back to the Finals in 2010, falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in a hard-fought seven game series.

The Celtics couldn’t get by the Heat the last two seasons, losing in five games in the 2011 Conference Semifinals and coming up just short this year in the Conference Finals.

Heat switch it up, shut down Celtics

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
1:20
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Boston Celtics
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston's veteran core struggled to find the basket in Game 6.

Before Game 6, Boston seemed to have Miami's defense figured out. Then Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to shoot 13-for-39.

It wasn't a fluke. If it appeared that Boston's offense was out of rhythm, it might have been because Miami and coach Erik Spoelstra changed the tempo.

What Miami did in Game 6 was switch as much and as often as possible. The strategy has two benefits: (1) defenders are no longer laboring through the Celtics' screen-heavy offense, conserving energy by trading assignments; and (2) those same screens might yield mismatches but not wide-open players.

When the Celtics offense is humming, an unusual number of their makes are assisted. According to HoopData, 66.5 percent of Boston's regular-season makes were assisted, by far the highest percentage in the league.

Just how much do they rely on the pass to score? The difference between Boston's percentage of makes assisted and the No. 2 team, Milwaukee, was greater than the difference between Milwaukee and the No. 17 team (Dallas).

In Game 6, just 43.8 percent of the Celtics' makes were assisted.

Death by isolation

Boston's regular-season assist numbers don't just reflect an offense built on sharing the ball but a collection of players who struggle to score without help. Paul Pierce has a deserved reputation for one-on-one talents, but Garnett and Allen need others to do the creating for them. KG can post up and score in isolations, but where he has killed the Heat this series is on rolls to the rim and pops to the midrange, particularly working with passing wizard Rajon Rondo.

As a result of all the switching, the Celtics' best scoring option in Game 6 became attacking a mismatch one-on-one rather than using one another to create wide-open shots. Pierce took 18 shots over at least five different defenders, as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh all spent time on the Celtics' iso ace. Pierce was able to create space to shoot, but fadeaway 18-footers, while a makeable shot for him, aren't a reliable shot for anyone.

Meanwhile, Garnett was able to use his size and soft touch to score over smaller players, but the Heat, especially after the first 18 minutes or so, worked hard to limit him to these more difficult opportunities.

Switching allowed Miami to defend Rondo and Garnett pick-and-rolls without helping too much with a third player. Again, the idea was to force Rondo to score over a bigger player or make Garnett to get his buckets one-on-one -- a fairly reliable but exceedingly taxing method of scoring.

Rondo burned the Heat for 19 points in the first half, many of them in transition, but he also forced passes in the pick-and-roll and seemed ill at ease when the Heat backed off him in favor of taking away Garnett.

Bosh is back

It wasn't strategy alone that made the difference. There were some wide-open missed shots (as there are every game), and the Heat were not without defensive breakdowns. But Miami had a new weapon to clean up those mistakes: Chris Bosh, who swatted three shots in his 28 minutes of court time.

The Heat's interior defense looked stunningly different with Bosh, the team's tallest player, on the court. Spoelstra kept Bosh off Garnett so that he could roam and support mismatched defenders, not unlike how Boston prefers to keep Garnett free to help its overmatched wing defenders.

Can the Celtics adjust?

In Game 6, after consistently scoring for four straight games, Boston's offense looked more like it had in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That's not surprising, considering that Atlanta and Philadelphia are two teams with switch-heavy defenses. In both series, Garnett had to come up big on the offensive end for the Celtics to advance.

That's probably a good predictor of what will have to happen for the Celtics to win Game 7. Bosh's return and the Heat's aggressive switching will force Boston to rely on the Big Ticket, who always has a size advantage over his primary defender. One thing Doc Rivers is likely to do to accentuate this advantage is have his smaller players set screens for Garnett. If the Heat are going to switch and concede a mismatch, Rivers will look for the best mismatch he can get.

But how much does Garnett have left? Fatigue will play a significant role in Game 7, especially considering the phenomenal load of minutes and responsibility that James, Garnett and Rondo have carried not just in this series but throughout the playoffs.

The Heat seem willing to concede decent shots to avoid giving away great shots. The Celtics have a few players who can get it done that way, but the percentages aren't in their favor. Spoelstra and the Heat are trusting the numbers and hoping that the Celtics' old legs will succumb to the challenge of scoring on their own.

After Game 6, Rivers said he thought his players were trying to win the game with individual plays. If the Heat's defense can have a similar impact in Game 7, Boston might have to.

LeBron matches Wilt to force Game 7

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
1:17
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
LeBron James did something that only Wilt Chamberlain had done in NBA postseason history. The Heat forced Game 7 with a 98-79 victory over the Celtics on Thursday night.
Facing elimination on the road, the Miami Heat forced Game 7, beating the Boston Celtics 98-79 behind an incredible performance from the MVP.

LeBron James scored 45 points and added 15 rebounds and five assists, just the second time in NBA history a player put up those numbers in a playoff game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilt Chamberlain had 50 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in the 1964 Western Division Finals against the St. Louis Hawks.

James had 30 points at halftime on 12-for-14 shooting, a playoff career high for points in the first half. He finished 19-for-26 (73.1 pct) from the floor, his highest field-goal percentage and second-most field goals in a playoff game.

He was a one-man wrecking crew, as evidenced by his work in isolation -- he made 15 unassisted field goals Thursday night, tying his career high for unassisted field goals in a game.

James scored 20 points in isolation Thursday, 11 more than his previous high in the series and nearly as many as the first five games combined.

Elias tells us that James is the first player to score at least 25 points in six straight playoff games against the Celtics since Kareem-Abdul Jabbar did it in seven straight in 1974.

LeBron attacked the Celtics down low, finishing eight plays with post-ups, going 7-for-7 from the field and drawing a shooting foul (1-for-2 FT) on such plays. That’s more field goals from the post than in the first five games combined.

Difference Maker
The Heat shot 24-for-45 (53.3 pct) with Chris Bosh on the floor Thursday, and and just 13-for-31 (41.9 pct) with him on the bench.

Big Loss for Boston
According to Elias, the Celtics’ 19-point loss is tied for their third-worst loss in a potential series clinching home game in franchise history.

Rajon Rondo
Rondo
Missing the Point
Rajon Rondo had an odd game, leading the Celtics with 21 points and 10 assists. But he also committed a playoff career-high seven turnovers, almost half of his total for the series entering Game 6.

Rondo was just 2-for-7 (28.6 pct) with six points when guarded by Dwyane Wade and shot 6-for-7 (85.6 pct) with 15 points against all other defenders.

Rondo couldn’t get inside against Wade, who was giving a big cushion on defense. Rondo’s average field-goal attempt when guarded by Wade was 13.6 feet from the basket, with none coming inside five feet. Against all other defenders his average shot distance was 4.6 feet, with five attempts coming inside five feet.

LeBron His Own Big 3
James outplayed Boston’s “Big 3” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen by himself in almost every way on Thursday, outscoring them, outrebounding them and racking up more assists.

The 31 combined points is the lowest in a playoff game that all three played in since they became teammates in the 2007-08 season. In fact, four of their five lowest totals have come against teams featuring LeBron James.

Celtics have trouble closing series

June, 6, 2012
6/06/12
12:58
PM ET
By Ernest Tolden, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Celtics are just 11-13 since 2007-08 with the chance to clinch a series.
A veteran squad such as the Boston Celtics have plenty of experience in closing out series, and will have the opportunity to do so against the Miami Heat in Game 6 on Thursday (8:30 ET, ESPN). But the Celtics haven't been as successful as fans might think when it comes to eliminating opponents recently.

Since Boston's Big 3 (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen) formed entering the 2007-08 season, the Celtics have in fact struggled closing out postseason series. When having the opportunity to clinch, Boston is just 11-13 in those games over that span. This postseason, the Celtics are 2-2 in such games but just 0-2 in the first opportunity. The one silver lining, however, is that Boston is 9-2 in such chances at home.

LeBron James, however, has trailed 3-2 in a best-of-seven series four times in his postseason career. Each time, his team went on to lose the series, including suffering defeat at the hands of the Celtics twice. Only once out of those four times has a James-led team been able to force a Game 7.

What's more, James is usually at his postseason worst when trailing in a series. When his team is tied or leads the series, James is averaging 28.5 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor. Compare that to when his team trails the series; in those situations, James is putting up 27.4 points per game with a field goal percentage of just 42.8. His turnovers per game also increase from 3.2 to 5.3.

Miami now has Chris Bosh back in the lineup, but his addition did not help the Heat in Game 5, as they were outscored by 12 points in the 14 minutes with Bosh on the court. In addition, Miami was 20.8 percent from the floor with Bosh in the game and had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (five).

Wade needs Bosh to overcome Garnett

June, 5, 2012
6/05/12
3:41
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Garnett has been all over Dwyane Wade.

If Dwyane Wade has the ball, there’s a decent chance Kevin Garnett has no idea where his man is. See, Garnett much doesn’t care where Joel Anthony roams or where Udonis Haslem may be floating. When Wade has the ball, Garnett doesn't just watch Wade, he mirrors his every movement, taking big defensive risks to remain constantly between Wade and the rim.

The effect has been dramatic. With Garnett on the court, not only are the Celtics much, much better, but Wade is shooting under 40 percent from the field and firing a greater percentage of his attempts from farther away from the rim.

When Garnett sits, Wade has hit a staggering 75 percent of his shots.

The Heat seem to know about this, and have tried to get Garnett to turn his focus elsewhere. But Garnett's not taking that bait.

After one Game 3 timeout, the Heat ran Garnett’s man, Shane Battier, along a baseline screen to the opposite corner. Surely he'd follow, right? If so, the Heat would finally find Wade space to attack Ray Allen off the dribble.

Nice try. As soon as Battier exited the paint, Garnett turned back to Wade, forcing the dynamic guard into an off-balance runner.

Against a player like Wade, the primary defender is important, but the real matchup is Wade vs. the second line of defense. When that second line has been Garnett, Wade tends to settle for tough step-backs and pull-ups.

Garnett’s stellar smarts on defense even allow him to snuff out most of the plays designed to feed Wade by proactively rotating to prevent Wade from even attempting a drive.

Wonder why Mario Chalmers is having such a great series? It’s in part because Garnett is so focused on Wade that he's out of place to protect the rim when Chalmers attacks off the dribble. The video suggests the Celtics have simply decided to concede some of those plays to stop Wade.

Yet it’s not like Wade can’t score against the Celtics. Keep in mind that he put up over 30 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting against Boston in the playoffs just a year ago.

What was different then? The Heat had Chris Bosh.

Heat Index's Tom Haberstroh explains how much Bosh’s presence has meant to Wade this postseason:
Looking at his numbers in NBA.com's stats tool, we find that 56 percent of Wade's shots come inside the paint when Bosh is on the floor in the playoffs, and he's making those shots at a scorching 76 percent clip. When Bosh has sat, those numbers tumble; only 51 percent of his shots come in the paint, and his conversion rate plummets to 61 percent.

After checking the footage from last year’s Heat-Celtics series, Haberstroh's research makes perfect sense. The tape shows plenty of great defensive play from Kevin Garnett, but it also shows him out on the wing, denying Chris Bosh the ball 20 feet from the rim. On one 2011 possession, Bosh feeds Wade in the post, where he has an obvious mismatch on Ray Allen. Instead of crashing down to help, as he certainly would were he guarding Haslem or Anthony, Garnett stays attached to Bosh and watches as Wade bullies Allen for an easy bucket -- something Wade hasn't seen many of in this series.

Since the second round, the Heat have learned to get by without Bosh reasonably well -- namely by relying on LeBron James and Wade to dominate not only their individual matchups, but to reign at the rim, too. That’s what happened against Indiana: once the two phenoms figured out how to attack Hibbert the series was pretty much settled.

Going against Garnett has proven more difficult. The Big Ticket remains an elite defender at the rim, and his feet and instincts are still quick enough to close down driving angles before Wade or James can even make a move to the hoop. So what makes Bosh so important against Boston is that unlike Haslem, Battier or Anthony, who can be neutralized by a hard rotation from another defender, Bosh will dominate any Celtic other than Garnett. His gravitational pull clears the lane for Wade.

As Doc Rivers told Tom Haberstroh for ESPN Boston it's much harder to just gang up on Wade and James:
“His shot and his ability to make shots will help them,” Rivers said of Bosh. “The difference is that because he’s a 7-footer, we’re going to do the same rotations, but when you rotate out to a 7-footer and the defender is not another 7-footer, it’s not going to affect their shot. With Bosh he’s going to get the shot off.”

Bosh is also a decision-maker in the Heat offense. When he rolls to the middle of the court, he has the skill and savvy to knock down the shot, take a dribble and finish at the rim, or pass off the move. It hardly needs mentioning that these are plays not commonly associated with Joel Anthony, who has trouble simply catching and powering up to finish at the rim.

Boston can’t abandon Bosh in space, in fact quite the opposite, and that makes defending Wade and James far more complicated than simply deploying Garnett for what is in effect a nearly constant soft double-team.

It's unclear whether Bosh will be healthy enough to make an impact in this series at all, let alone in Game 5. But the conference finals have vividly illustrated why Heat players and coaches call Chris Bosh their most important player -- his mere presence makes two of the best players in the world far more effective.

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