While James scored 31 points in the 101-88 win over the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and succeeded in getting the monkey off his back for at least one more playoff round, it was Chris Bosh whose presence was indispensible to the Heat's success in their last two wins to close out the series. James, for one, recognized that reality without debate.
"Game ball automatically goes to him," James said. "Without his production [Saturday], we don't win."
Bosh's three-week absence with a strained abdominal muscle and Miami's 5-4 record in that time frame prompted some baseless claims that the Heat were better off without him. Saturday's game resoundingly put the lie to that argument. Not only did Bosh deliver three pivotal 3-pointers, he helped spread the floor on offense for James and Dwyane Wade's dribble drives and contributed several key defensive plays, without which the Heat might not be moving on to the NBA Finals.
"This was the biggest challenge that I ever had in my life, to make sure I stay ready, so when the time did come I would be able to contribute instead of trying to get my legs under me and be a non-factor," Bosh said. "I thought about it every day. I worked hard with the coaching staff and the doctors and the trainers, and we just relentlessly worked every day. Now, those things are paying off."
Kevin Garnett had free reign of the paint in the first four games of the series, when Shane Battier spent considerable time at power forward and Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf futilely tried to challenge Garnett's aggressiveness and length around the basket. Most importantly for the Celtics, Garnett was able to roam defensively, fully confident he could close out on Haslem's occasional jumpers and entirely dismissive of Turiaf's offensive game.
Bosh's return changed everything. His timing was not quite back in Game 5, when he made his first appearance of the series, but by Game 6 the Celtics could not ignore him. Garnett needed to account for Bosh's outside shooting, which meant Garnett could not help as aggressively when James or Wade beat his defender off the dribble. By Game 7, the Celtics could merely hope Bosh would not hit his shots. All three of Bosh's treys came off drive-and-kicks by Wade, James or Mario Chalmers, with Bosh's defender in no-man's land stuck between trying to give help while not totally leaving Bosh unguarded, either.
Bosh's presence on defense transformed the game as well. With 3:40 to play and the Celtics in dire need of a basket, Bosh sniffed out an attempted alley-oop play from Rajon Rondo to Garnett and tipped away Rondo's pass. It was a play Haslem or Turiaf never would have read, and even if they had read it, they do not possess the reach to disrupt the pass. On the Celtics' next possession, Rondo dribbled into the lane and attempted an up-and-under floater that Bosh stayed home on and blocked to ignite a transition opportunity for the Heat.
The Heat recognized these elements Bosh added to their attack, even if others did not.
"Even though we didn't admit it, we all had a big pit in our stomachs when we saw him walking off the court in Game 1 of the Indiana series," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We all shuddered at the thought. We played it off tough, but we knew that for two years he has been our most important player, because he makes it all work."
Bosh is often wrongly blasted as the reason the Heat lose, but on Saturday there was no dispute that he was one of the primary reasons the Heat won. Just ask the guy who scored 31 points who awarded Bosh the mythical game ball.