MAN IN THE MIDDLE

March 20, 2011

A wild five-game losing streak underscored Miami's shortcomings, delighted haters and lit a fire under laid-back—and frequently maligned—big man Chris Bosh

The Heat's season appears to have morphed into a reality-TV series, one in which even the most innocuous shoulder bumps and mundane comments are seized upon and turned into a week's worth of sensationalized programming. Yet one of its most important moments happened in the humdrum privacy of a morning shootaround last Thursday, when power forward Chris Bosh—among the NBA's more serene stars—had a rare alpha episode of his own. "He was going full speed, he yelled a couple times, he was keeping guys in it—'Come on, let's go!'" says Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "One time he dunked and said, 'Come on, we're going to do this tonight!' Everybody looked to see his expression."

They realized he wasn't kidding around: The Heat had lost five straight, and a visit by the two-time defending champion Lakers loomed less than nine hours away. That night Bosh poured in 16 of his team-high 24 points in the first half to lead Miami to a 94--88 win, after which Spoelstra cited Bosh's moment of assertiveness earlier in the day. "I was surprised by the reaction," says Bosh. "I didn't even know anybody took notice."

The win over the Lakers gave the Heat a sweep of the two-game season series, though it did nothing to improve Miami's 0--9 mark through Sunday against the Spurs, Celtics, Bulls and Mavericks, the other four teams in the league with better records. The Miami experiment so far has yielded more questions than answers. Is this self-appointed trio of young stars Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade defined by its 21--1 streak that ran from late November through early January? Or by its 1-for-18 performance on game-winning or tying shots in the final 10 seconds of games? Does the fact that the Heat has had a chance to win all but three games in the last five minutes prove how far it has come? Or does the fact that Miami is 1--8 in games decided by three points or fewer show how much the team still has to learn?

Bosh admits the Heat had been "embarrassed on national TV" during the recent skid, a 10-day stretch characterized by poor execution and off-the-court drama, including Spoelstra's revelation after a loss to Chicago that unnamed players were shedding tears in the locker room, and TNT's Charles Barkley's excoriating the team to "quit whining and bitching like a little girl." And yet at week's end, as fans around the league savored the seemingly inevitable implosion of the Heat, the team remained within 2½ games of Eastern Conference--leading Boston.

If Miami is going to convert the Decision into an instant victory parade, one of the keys will be the play of the 6'11" Bosh as he gears up for the postseason, when size matters most. After repeatedly chastising himself in public for not demanding the ball in the post, he followed his strong inside play against Los Angeles with a versatile 18 points on 11 shots in a 118--85 win over the visiting Grizzlies last Saturday. Though Bosh has put up solid numbers (18.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game through Sunday) and earned a sixth straight All-Star invitation, he has been derided as one of the league's "fake tough guys," as Thunder forward Kevin Durant put it after losing to the Heat in January. "Chris is always the one they're going to attack, whether it's on offense or defense or with words," says Wade. "He has to understand that and take that as a chip on his shoulder."

His critics should be reminded that Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol had previously been dismissed as power forwards who weren't known for mixing it up inside. "They must have the formula for something, because they've won the last three [championships]," says Bosh. "Just because a guy isn't all big and brawling and pushing everybody around, that doesn't matter—what matters is their competitive spirit. Those guys have been doing it, and hopefully I'll be the next one to do it."

In spite of their failures in the biggest moments, Bosh insists that he, James and Wade are steadily learning their roles. "We're still one year removed from [each] being the main guy taking 20 shots and carrying the team on our back on a nightly basis," Bosh says. "I had to learn to move without the ball, and I'm still learning to do it. That's one facet of the game, like the 50 million other things I have to work on that I didn't have to know before. One thing I've learned is that it's easy to shoot a lot of shots, but it's harder to fill a role."

The difficulties in learning those new roles were evident in the final seconds of Miami's 87--86 loss to the visiting Bulls on March 6, when James was isolated on the left side. When he was in Cleveland, James would draw the defense and pass to the open man. But as he drove on the 6'11" Joakim Noah, neither Bosh nor Wade had moved into open space, leaving James no choice but to force up—and miss—a difficult runner over Noah.

After spending his first seven NBA years in the relative isolation of Toronto, Bosh finds his eyes are still adjusting to the harsh light of scrutiny experienced by the Heat. "It's a trip to listen to everything, and you've got to laugh to keep from crying sometimes," he says. "There's going to be somebody different saying something every day. I don't get why people do it, but we're going to use that as ammunition to come together."

The 24-hour news cycle began during last summer's free-agency period, which culminated with 10,000 fans packing American Airlines Arena for a celebration last July that now makes it difficult for the Heat to complain about sensationalism. Yet the outside pressures clearly exist, and they have helped squeeze the Heat stars closer together.

"We've had a lot of talks, we've had heart-to-hearts, especially after this five-game losing streak," says Bosh. "Things were tough. If someone's not playing hard, you've got to talk about it. You may not want to hear about it, it may hurt at the time, but the media situation and the microscope has desensitized us [to the point that a teammate's reaction] really doesn't matter. I'll say things when guys don't want to hear it most, and they'll get mad for a second and then it's, Right, my bad, let's do that."

That higher tolerance for criticism was tested last week when Bosh demanded to be a larger inside presence for the good of the team. Wade encouraged him to be aggressive—but he also bluntly added, "It's Chris not having been in a lot of these situations and moments in his career. A lot of after-All-Star breaks for Chris has been planning his vacation early." Bosh has been painfully honest with himself as well. "I'm not even a good defensive player right now," he says, though his work at that end has improved in Miami.

Spoelstra and his players have been through so many miniscandals that they've learned to not fear the next attack, even as outsiders have trouble understanding how they continue to push through. "One of the reasons why the Bulls were very successful—and the Lakers also—is their engendered good feelings: People were rooting for them, they wanted to see them be successful," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson of his title teams in Chicago and L.A. "From what I've heard, this team feels like they're being looked at to lose... . That's a burden to carry."

But Heat president Pat Riley has spent three successful decades developing an us-against-the-world mentality, and his protégé, Spoelstra, has instilled it in the players. "I mentioned to the team the other day, 'We're getting to know each other right now,'" says Spoelstra of the recent losing streak. "You get to know somebody really when there's adversity, when you don't necessarily like each other and you don't like where things are going. When you truly get to know somebody is when you truly make strides collectively."

Riley felt obliged last week to shoot down speculation about Spoelstra's future, telling the Newark Star-Ledger it was nothing more than "the media being neurotic." Talk of a coaching change indeed makes no sense, not only because the Heat has kept fighting for Spoelstra but also because there is no ready replacement. Riley has made it clear he doesn't want to return to the bench, and potential hires down the line include only one NBA coach who has won a championship and isn't of retirement age: Doc Rivers, who has insisted to friends that he would sit out at least one season should he ever leave the Celtics. Miami isn't so much a franchise as it is a program of unique principles and systems set forth by Riley. He has invested 16 years in developing Spoelstra, who has worked his way up from video coordinator within the program. Fire Spoelstra to bring in an outsider, and all of that goes out the window. The three stars came to play in the Riley program, and he isn't going to betray them less than a year into their mission.

"When things get rough, I know I have been in situations that are much worse," says Bosh, who doesn't regret leaving Toronto, where he made just two playoff appearances—both first-round losses—in seven years. "It's worse not having a chance."

Can the Heat convert its star power into a championship over the next three months? The formula used to beat the Lakers seems promising: Bosh established himself around the basket early, James filled the role of playmaker and Wade served as the ruthless finisher, scoring eight points in the final five minutes. But two NBA advance scouts say that there is too much tit for tat between James and Wade. "It's not that they don't like each other, it's that they take turns—it's LeBron's turn, and then when he goes to sit on the bench it's D-Wade's turn to go on a spurt," says one of the scouts. "They both need the ball in their hands, and then while they've been figuring that out, Bosh has had to find his spot in the offense."

The Heat may not fulfill its potential until next season or beyond, after Riley has found a center who fits in, and James and Wade have not only established a flow but also improved their three-point shooting in order to spot up when the other penetrates. But Miami doesn't have to approach perfection in order to win now. The Celtics have taken on the risk of relying on four future Hall of Famers who have each played more than 35,000 career minutes: If that gamble backfires and Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Paul Pierce happens to break down, then which contender in the East is going to stop the Heat? Will it be the Bulls, whose MVP front-runner, point guard Derrick Rose, has never won a postseason series? Can it be the Magic, whose overhauled roster has spent less time together than Miami's?

No matter whom the Heat face, Bosh's importance will escalate in the postseason, as the pace slows and the need for interior scoring grows. "I would say this is the most ambitious group of people I've ever met in my life," says Bosh of the organization. "People have to remember that this is our first year together. We said what our ambitions are—we want to win championships—and everybody wants to throw rocks because we came together. But there's going to be frustrations because we're growing, there's going to be pain."

That pain has been amplified by all of the scrutiny and the delight that so many seem to take in the Heat's struggles. If suddenly it should all click this postseason for James, Wade and Bosh—and it very well could—they may celebrate the criticism as a source of inspiration. If nothing else, it has given them a sense of urgency. "It's got to be this year," says Bosh. "We don't want to put in all of this hard work just to get our hearts broken."

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NOW THAT HE'S NOT THE GO-TO GUY, BOSH SAYS THERE ARE "50 MILLION THINGS I HAVE TO WORK ON THAT I DIDN'T HAVE TO KNOW BEFORE."

PHOTOPhotograph by HEINZ KLUETMEIERHOT TOPIC Still a work in progress, the Big Three of (from left) James, Bosh and Wade have spent their first season together under intense scrutiny. THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by HEINZ KLUETMEIERBUMPY ROAD Spoelstra (below) has his hands full getting consistency from Bosh (above), who was 1 for 18 from the floor in a loss to the Bulls, and trying to get Wade (right) to settle into the role of closer.

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