Let's face it: Chris Bosh takes a beating. He is disrespected by fans, who refuse to place him on the same level of his two future Hall of Fame teammates. It's not the Big 3 in Miami, you know. It's the Big 2½.
He is maligned by his peers. Remember when Carlos Boozer declared that Miami had two great players before the Bulls played the Heat in the 2011 playoffs? Or when the usually soft spoken Kevin Durant referred to Bosh as a "fake tough guy?" It's hard to feel bad for a nine-time All-Star with two championship rings making $19 million per season. But Bosh...almost.
He's is an easy target. He shoots jumpers. He yells a lot. He's a good defender but not of the ilk of Joakim Noah or a Roy Hibbert. But as Miami makes its push towards a third straight championship -- a goal it moved one step closer to with a 98-96 win over San Antonio on Sunday -- one thing about Bosh is irrefutable: The Heat badly need him.
Think about what Bosh has done this postseason. In the first round against Charlotte, Bosh played a hobbled Al Jefferson to a standstill. Against Brooklyn, Bosh scored double figures in all five games, shooting better than 50 percent in three of them. In the conference finals against Indiana, Bosh battled Roy Hibbert down low and scored 20-plus points in each of the final three games of the series. On Sunday, Bosh scored 18 points, none bigger than the corner three he pocketed with 1:17 left to give Miami a two-point lead, and handed out left-handed, bounce pass assist to Dwyane Wade with nine seconds left to swell the Heat lead to five.
Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to the media after Game 2: "He's arguably our most important player."
No one gets more irked at the public beating Bosh takes than Spoelstra. Spoelstra knows the sacrifices Bosh has had to make. Defensively, he is often asked to play out of position, to bang bodies with players carrying 15 or 20 pounds more than him. In Toronto, Bosh was the star, the alpha male. In Miami, Bosh has had to get used to a secondary role in an offense that is built around James and Wade. This season, Spoelstra asked Bosh to become even more perimeter oriented to create better spacing on the floor. Bosh responded by connecting on 74 three's, 13 fewer than he had made in his career to that point.
"He's one of the most stable, mentally tough guys I've ever been around," Spoelstra said. "That's why it raises the hair on the back of my neck when people question him. He absolutely has championship DNA. It's that mental toughness that comes through because he understands he's going to be criticized from the outside, because of how we ask him to play, which is paramount, that's critical for our success."
Bosh's teammates believe in him. In the final seconds of Game 5 of the East finals, Bosh was fed a crisp pass from a penetrating James, only to miss a three-pointer that would have given Miami the series-clinching win. On Sunday, Bosh found himself in a similar situation, alone in the corner watching James careen towards the basket on a broken play. There was no hesitation on the pass from James, nothing but an unflinching belief that his teammate would make the shot. And this time, Bosh cooly knocked it down.
"Whether [Bosh] is having a good night or a bad night," Wade said, "He has the guts to take it."
Bosh knows the criticism of him isn't going anywhere. "Validating yourself is a constant process," Bosh said. He knows that if Tim Duncan has a big Game 3, he is going to shoulder most of the blame for it. He knows that whenever the season ends, there will be a faction of fans who deem him expendable, who will make re-signing James and Wade (if they opt out) a priority and be fine with swapping him out with a cheaper alternative. Nevermind that Bosh has already said his first option is to return to the Heat, and that he would be willing to take a discount to do it.
For Bosh, it's all part of the price he knew he would have to pay coming to Miami.
"I don't really care about criticism," Bosh said. "If it doesn't help me, then I don't listen to it. Throughout my career, it's changed, ever since I've gotten here, but you just have to put that behind you. Everybody gets criticized, and I understand that. I'm not immune to it. 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 matters."