- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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Pair two of the league's top players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the court together and the all-world tandem is bound to win regardless of the supporting cast, right?
Because there's a hidden truth behind this Heat team that should have Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra hoping the latest injury bug doesn't last long:
The Heat have been woefully overmatched when Wade and James play without Chris Bosh.
No, this isn't just a knee-jerk overreaction to the Heat's overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night when the Heat played their first game without their 5-time All-Star power forward. That ugly defeat is just the latest piece of the startling season-long trend. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Wade and James have played 153 minutes this season together sans Bosh and here are the results on the scoreboard:
Heat 298 – Opponents 332.
That's right, opposing teams have outscored the Heat by 34 points this season when Miami features two of the league's top players in the same lineup. Translated to the scale of a regulation game, the Heat are getting trounced by a average margin of about 11 points every 48 minutes (93-104). For a comparison, the 8-33 Cleveland Cavaliers are currently averaging a score of 94-105.
And this isn't a normal power outage when the Big Three downsizes to a Big Two. Sub out Wade and the Heat have won by an average of 1.2 points every 48 minutes with James and Bosh on the floor. Remove James from the game and Miami has outscored opponents by 5.4 points every 48 minutes with the Wade and Bosh pairing.
But when Bosh has left the star wings to fend for themselves, his absence has sent the Heat into a spiral. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Friday's practice, he's trying to find ways to get them going without Bosh. But as the numbers show, it hasn't been an easy task.
"Chris [Bosh] has been our crutch," Spoelstra said. "He can be our bail out anytime we need ball movement or need to get multiple people involved usually he's the facilitator either at the high post or some kind of pick and roll where we throw it back to him. So when he got hurt, that took a large component of our game out."
Looking at the numbers, it appears that the Heat suffer on both ends of the court, not just on offense. The Heat score 107.2 points per 48 minutes with the Big 3 together but it plummets to just 93.2 points once Bosh leaves. Not exactly the high-powered offense one might envision with two of the league's most dominant scorers wearing the same uniform. Defensively, the impact is equally destructive, as the Heat give up 103.9 points per 48 minutes compared to just 92.9 points with the Big 3 intact.
Bosh may play the power forward position, but his function is as the Heat's stabilizer in the half court. In addition to moving the ball, he lifts the scoring burden off of his two dominant wingmen and pulls defenders away just enough so James and Wade don't have to create space by themselves.
"We have easier shots when he's in," Wade said "Sometimes you don't understand how important a guy is until you don't have him. I know early in the year, Chris was getting a lot of slack but, if you see from our side, we knew how important he was for us. And now everyone gets to see Chris is very important with everything we do here."
When Bosh leaves the court, the Heat move away from a pick-and-roll oriented offense to one that resorts to chucking 3s after standing around idly. And this is precisely what opponents want since the Heat's two best scorers, James and Wade, aren't renowned for their 3-point shot. In fact, the Heat launch 28 three-point attempts every 48 minutes without Bosh on the floor. With Bosh, their appetite for 3-pointers tightens to just 18 attempts, a drastic downturn of 10 shots.
But the Heat aren't launching more 3s because they're experiencing a hot hand. Actually it's quite the opposite; the team's 3-point percentage slips from 38.1 percent with Bosh to 37.0 percent without, even though they're firing them off like they're 3-point contest participants.
With this in mind, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that to see the ugliest 3-point contest of all-time break out during the loss to the Atlanta Hawks without Bosh. And we shouldn't be all that surprised either that James' season-high 10 3-point attempts coincided with Bosh's absence. All season-long, Bosh has indirectly tempered James' downtown gunning. The two-time MVP's 3-point field goal attempts just about double once Bosh leaves the floor, soaring from 3.9 attempts per 48 minutes to 7.6 attempts. What's worse, his conversion rate plunges from 40 percent to 30 percent.
Without Bosh, the Heat look lost -- and they're losing. But the Heat didn't go into the season without a safety net in case Bosh got hurt. Unfortunately for Miami, that insurance plan went out the window a long time ago.
"We're missing Udonis Haslem," Wade said. "He's very important to what we do and we don't have him. And now we're missing a big chunk out of what the Miami Heat are like. But we're trying to make our way without him."
There's no doubt that Haslem would soften the blow on both ends of the floor in the event Bosh was sidelined, but a torn ligament in his foot has him shelved until likely the end of the season. So for Bosh's backup, the Heat are forced to turn Plan C, Juwan Howard. With Howard or one of the Heat's other scoring-deficient big men being asked to step in, the game effectively becomes four-on-five. With no interior scoring threat for the Heat, pick-and-rolls turn into bear traps for Wade and James out on the perimeter. And the effect on the offense has been paralyzing.
"Anytime you go two removed from your normal depth chart, everybody's going to feel that. Thankfully, Chris's injury isn't serious."
The Heat hope to have their starting power forward ready for Saturday's game against the Raptors. If not, be prepared for more disjointed offensive possessions that remind us that at its core, basketball is a team game. Playing two superstars, no matter how talented they may be, isn't always enough.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne