Time, Space and Chris Bosh in Portland

Chris Bosh
Photo Credit: Sam Forencich

It’s easy to tell when a player is shooting well. The oldest and most simple statistics tell us how many shots a player has made and missed. For some players, namely those that act purely as spot-up shooters, that might be all you need to know about how they performed in a given game.

So, when Chris Bosh scores 37 points on 15-of-26 shooting and hits a game-winning three – the Heat improving to 12-1 when he scores 30 or more and 8-0 when he takes at least 20 shots – the numbers speak for themselves. But the stat line jumps off the page because of the volume. Bosh had to shoulder more of an offensive load as LeBron James sat with a strained groin, but Bosh had been playing well for quite some time before landing in Portland. Bosh wasn’t necessarily better, there was just more of him. And he was ready for the burden not simply because he was prepared to shoot, but because he was able to utilize the same process that had been getting him good shots in smaller doses.

Developing a three-point shot had added an entirely new dimension of floor spacing, but the old reliable play for Bosh since he joined the HEAT has always been the simple pick-and-roll. No matter the time or situation, the team has always been able to trust that a quick pick set by Bosh will open up a shot somewhere on the floor. He’s a safety net, not just because he’s a good shooter but because at his best Bosh has a masterful sense of the floor. He reads defensive alignments as he sets his screens and adapts appropriately. And it’s that awareness that helped set up the final play against the Trail Blazers.

While the Blazers defense is still ranked below average on a per-possession basis, it still has a firm identity thanks to coach Terry Stotts adopting some of the league’s trendy schemes. There may be no Roy Hibbert or Joakim Noah on the floor, but Stotts has Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge run generally the same pick-and-roll coverage as their Eastern Conference counterparts. Instead of attacking the ballhandler or shading the ball in a particular direction, the big man sits underneath the screen surrendering a pull-up jumper and catching the ball – rather than chasing it – as it enters the paint.

Among its many purposes, this coverage is meant to encourage shots from the more inefficient zones of the floor. When the Pacers use it, those shots often wind up being contested thanks to the cohesion and discipline of their perimeter players. But against Portland, Bosh had an open mid-range jumper any time he wanted to pop in to space.

The trick for Bosh has always been balancing the ease with which he can get those jumpers and the more aggressive plays. One of the more significant games Bosh played with the HEAT was when he shot 1-for-18 against Chicago in 2011. After that night, when Bosh’s jumper just wouldn’t fall, the HEAT stepped back and re-evaluated how Bosh was being used. The result wasn’t just more pick-and-roll’s to go with the pick-and-pop’s, but more use of the in-between area that would allow Bosh to shade the ballhandler and read the space in front of him after the initial screen. Something we like to call the shuffle-roll.

You’ll notice in that animation that Lopez again sits back in the paint and waits for Mario Chalmers to make his move. Bosh could have easily sat on the elbow and waited for his jumper, but instead he shuffles through the paint and make himself a target for Chalmers.

“I knew they were going to put the big fellow on me a lot and I just wanted to do my best to mix up taking it to the hole and shooting the jumper and being aggressive at all times,” Bosh said.

At this point in the Portland game, Bosh has established his arsenal. He’s gotten open jumpers by popping, by rolling and by shuffling, and he’s scored in every scenario. That’s three possibilities the defense has to think about and process during the precious moments best used reacting.

There’s also a fourth option. Instead of taking that mid-range real estate as he comes off the screen, Bosh can stretch out beyond the three-point line and create even more distance between himself and his recovering defender.

This isn’t always the shot the HEAT want. Just as with the mid-range shots, it’s easy to rely on how quick it is to get those pick-and-pop threes against a specific coverage and lose sight of what you’re trying to do on offense. You don’t build around these shots, it’s just nice to know that in a pinch you can get one of the best big men in the game an open look in space. And being in a situation with two minutes to go in a tied game with the league’s best player on the bench and the shot clock in single digits certainly qualifies as a pinch.

Now hold that thought for just a moment. Bosh’s triple gave Miami a three-point lead, but they still found themselves down two with a little bit over a shot-clock to play in the game. This time, Bosh merely had to stand still and allow the threat of what he had been doing all game draw his defender away from the paint.

A nice gesture by Bosh, it turns out, when his defender happens to be the only other big man in the game. Because with Aldridge essentially face-guarding him away from the ball, Erik Spoelstra’s oft-used decoy action along the baseline clears the paint for Wade to be Wade.

The quick score meant a tie game and enough time on the clock for the HEAT to think about having another play to go. It was a good thing, too, because Miami needed all of that time after Nic Batum hit a pair of free-throws – the HEAT’s defense was generally stout in the second half but there were a number of untimely miscues down the stretch – to put Portland up two.

Herein begins Spoelstra’s dilemma. With just over seven seconds to use, what to diagram on the whiteboard?

“My call at the end of the game was much more conservative,” Spoelstra said. “I drew something up to get [Bosh] on the move, and he said ‘No, I want it for three.’”

But why?

At this point Bosh had already made nine shots in the restricted area underneath the rim, tied for his personal high as a member of the HEAT, and aside from that it’s tough to depend on a straight dive to the rim. So there goes that option. The shuffle-roll is always nice, but it’s not the sort of action you can easily premeditate especially with so little time on the clock. If the roll gets cut off, you might end up with a double-teamed ballhandler forcing up a shot. So take out all the rolling action. That leaves us with the jumpers.

“[Spoelstra] had me going on the move,” Bosh said, presumably describing a pick-and-pop play that would get him a catch in space. “I’ve been playing for a little while now, so I kind of figured that it would be a long two and I didn’t want that. I knew that I would be more open and have more space if I popped for three. In that situation, I wanted to go for the win.”

Instead of moving laterally to the ball after setting a screen, Bosh preferred to be able to step in to a potential game-tying or game-winning jumper. And knowing how Aldridge and the Blazers had been playing the pick-and-pop all game, Bosh knew the space would be available.

First note that again Spoelstra sends a baseline runner after the inbounds pass to clear the paint of the defense and with Ray Allen the other non-inbounder on the floor there isn’t a readily available third defender to slide over and protect the rim. Against the Wade-Bosh action, Aldridge and Batum are on their own.

As nice as it would be to say that a brilliantly designed play got Bosh his jumper – and again, the process was spot on – we can’t ignore that there was a defensive miscue mixed in here. Typically most teams switch on the perimeter with so little time remaining to ensure that they don’t give up an open jumper, and it appears as though Aldridge is planning to switch since he’s playing much higher up on the floor than where he would normally play. But since Bosh creates minimal contact with Batum the switch is never called and with the memory of the dunk fresh on their minds, both players go chasing the ball into the paint.

It’s a slightly different route but the destination is the same as Bosh gets his look, albeit on a tough pass to handle, and Portland’s only closeouts are coming from the weakside of the floor. It wasn’t the easiest shot, but a play like this can go in a million different directions. Bosh made the proper read in advance of the play based on how he had been able to manipulate the defense all game, and it paid off.

This game will be offered up as a reminder of just how good Chris Bosh is despite his lower per-game averages, but we shouldn’t need to be reminded in the first place. If LeBron James plays in this game Bosh might not get to take as many shots as he did, but that doesn’t make what he does any less crucial. When he’s playing like this, Bosh is making time and space work in his favor. And that benefits the team no matter how many times he actually touches the ball. It’s a special thing having one of the best and smartest players at his position sacrifice his all-around game for those around him, and it’s worth appreciating even when his numbers don’t jump off the page.