SAN ANTONIO -- Harsh judgment comes with the gig in Miami, and with the exception of a certain Ohioan, nobody on the Heat has felt it more acutely since the summer pep rally in 2010 than Chris Bosh.
There's been an endless catalog of complaints about the Heat's big man -- starting with the popular gripe that he doesn't exactly play like one. The criticism, sometimes in the form of ridicule, has been relentless: He's soft, demure, a player unwilling to perform the more manual tasks of the job and just plain goofy.
When the mob has turned against Bosh, it's virtually impossible to appease them. They're unmoved by talk of Bosh's pick-and-roll defense, or the nuance required playing off two perimeter superstars, to say nothing of sublimating his ego after a lifetime of being Option No. 1.
Unfortunately for Bosh, those subtleties carry little currency when you enter Game 4 of the NBA Finals with playoff averages of 12.8 points and 8.0 rebounds with a true shooting percentage of 52.6 percent and a pedestrian Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 16.9. Yes, there was the sore ankle, and the challenging conditions of playing farther from the basket in the Heat's increasingly perimeter-oriented game, but the numbers have been incontrovertible.
As if the buzzards weren't flying low enough above Bosh with both him and his team down 2-1 to San Antonio, he took the floor for Game 4 as the only conventional big man in the Heat's small starting lineup.
The result was Bosh's finest outing of the postseason. He scored 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the floor and 4-for-4 from the stripe, snatched a game-high 13 rebounds, recorded two blocked shots and anchored an interior defense that had to withstand the Spurs' onslaught from beyond the arc.
Let's start with Bosh's much-maligned offense, which clicked on Thursday night. After months of trying to be a perimeter threat, he didn't attempt a single shot beyond 17 feet in Game 4. Bosh was statistically the most proficient midrange shooter in the NBA this season, and found his old stroke with a trio of jumpers from the foul-line extended area. On the pick-and-roll, Bosh moved fluidly in tandem with the likes of James, Dwyane Wade and even Ray Allen.
"I was able to get in the paint a lot more," Bosh said. "I think it really opened up my game a little bit. The jumper really wasn't there in the first half, but it came eventually. I was just able to get in a really good flow."
These were gorgeous sets against a Spurs defense that yields very little inside. But this is where Bosh's instincts to move to the smartest spot on the floor make the Heat such a dangerous team in the half court. When he tossed a handoff to Allen in the first quarter on the left sideline, Bosh cut behind Tim Duncan, giving Allen a sweet angle for a pocket pass and himself an easy route to the rim. And after setting a high pick for Wade in the fourth quarter, Bosh beat Boris Diaw to the rim and stuck his left arm in the air assertively to call for the lob over the San Antonio defense.
"We pick-and-roll with our 5s a lot," Bosh said. "They gave me some great passes. I was able to catch and finish in a lot of traffic. And those are really the buckets that we really need against this team, because we've been settling a little bit too much and just going down hill, being aggressive against them and really finishing around the rim, finishing around the paint, then kicking to our shooters."
The 20-point output was unquestionably positive, but Bosh's defense might have been even more impressive. Asked how being the only big man on the floor for Miami pressured him defensively, Bosh wryly responded, "To work."
It's no secret Bosh prefers a more traditional 1-through-5 defensive lineup (you'd be hard-pressed to find many power forwards in the league who enjoy guarding centers), but Bosh acquitted himself beautifully on Thursday.
"When we play with those lineups, he's the last man there," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We need Chris to be big and to do so many different things and wear a lot of different hats. We play him offensively everywhere on the floor. But defensively battling against a Hall of Famer, and then helping us clean up the glass really gave us a boost."
Bosh had a ton on his plate in Game 4. First, there was the Duncan assignment, where Bosh did solid B-plus work against the Hall-of-Famer in isolation. But Bosh truly excelled as the Heat's horse against the Spurs' pick-and-roll.
"Against Timmy you know he's always going to make it tough on you," Bosh said. "He's always going to play a two-man game with him and Tony Parker, him and [Manu] Ginobili. And not only do you have to do your job on the defensive end by sliding your feet on the pick-and-roll coverage, you have to get back, get in front of him hopefully, try your best to really push him out, and play defense."
There are only a handful of human beings who get excited about watching a big man's pick-and-roll defense. But in this capacity, Bosh put together a thinking fan's highlight reel.
Whether he was attacking Parker or Ginobili high on the pick-and-roll or corralling them on the switch, Bosh dug his heels in, poised to defend. And when the action moved low, Bosh raced back to protect the rim or rotate onto the Spurs' other frontcourt player. As the Heat's only true big man on the floor, Bosh didn't have a choice -- and you could detect that urgency in his movement.
"It's part of human nature," Spoelstra said when asked whether being the lone big man played into Bosh's general mood. "We also talked about it. There's nobody else. You look around, and that's it."
That's it. There was no Udonis Haslem alongside him in the first unit to do the dirty work, no Chris Andersen (DNP) to protect the rim, no Joel Anthony to harass the Spurs' ball handlers on the switch.
The paint was Bosh's domain in Game 4, and for the first time in a long while, he owned it.