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Heat get a boost at center

PHILADELPHIA -- Despite attempts to cover for it with kind words and firm denials, there was little doubt that the Miami Heat’s biggest flaw coming into the postseason was their unreliable and banged up bench.

Look at the raw numbers or ask league scouts and they’ll say the Heat had the most feeble reserve unit of any team in the playoffs. And with Udonis Haslem’s foot injury taking a long time to heal and Mike Miller now battling a new thumb injury that has knocked him out the rotation, it may have gotten weaker.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty

Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been the center of attention beneath the offensive glass.

But as the Heat have leapt out to a 3-0 series lead over the 76ers, the bench has been an unexpected aid. It’s hard to predict if the Heat can count on the production when they confront tougher opponents as the playoffs progress. But consider the embattled reserves to be in the “overachiever” file for now.

This has especially been true for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has been a surprising force against a susceptible Sixers front line. He may be a starter -- though he was just inserted back into the lineup in the final week of the regular season -- but on the Heat any player after LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh is technically a rotation player.

After averaging just 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds in the last 15 games of the regular season upon returning from a foot infection, Ilgauskas has outplayed the Sixers’ center corps. He’s averaged 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds on 11-of-16 shooting in the three games. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering what the Heat had gotten used to from the center spot, it’s a significant contribution.

In Thursday’s Game 3, Ilgauskas had eight offensive rebounds rebounds as the Sixers repeatedly left him alone to help out on drives by Wade and James.

“It took me a while to get my conditioning back but it has come around the last 10 days and I’m feeling pretty good now,” Ilgauskas said. “Other teams have to over-help on our three guys because there is a mismatch every time down the court, and it is our responsibility to make them accountable for it.”

Joel Anthony, who was also out of the Heat’s rotation just a few weeks ago, hasn’t made Ilgauskas' statistical impact, but he's perhaps been more valuable with his defense and his energy. Anthony’s ability to cover the athletic and versatile Thaddeus Young has been an important cog for the Heat on defense.

After Young had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Game 1, he was mostly neutralized over the last two games. He did have 18 points in Game 2 but most of them came in garbage time. In Game 3, Anthony helped hold Young to four points on 1-of-8 shooting.

Anthony's plus/minus for Game 3 was +15, mostly the product of a run he helped kick-start with his defense in the third quarter when the Heat took the lead for good. Anthony’s overall plus/minus in the series is +37, one of the best numbers of any bench player in the playoffs.

“Hustle is a talent, it is a skill, just like shooting a 3-pointer,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said about Anthony. “His ability to raise the energy level of the entire team is a skill you can’t find a lot of places in the NBA. His impact on the game is tangible and he has been a spark for us.”

The Heat haven’t gotten much out of their point guards in the series. Mike Bibby is just 6-of-21 shooting and Mario Chalmers is just 1-of-10 over the last two games.

But playing against the Sixers, who had one of the most productive benches in the league during the regular season, the Heat’s collective effort has been a lift.