Through three seasons, the barometer with which to measure the Miami Heat has been through LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
With the two-time reigning MVP James and fellow perennial All-Star Wade leading the charge, it’s easy to see the Heat’s struggles and successes through the stats and play of the team’s two leaders.
But with James seeing rare struggles from the field, and Wade playing passive — attempting just seven shots and failing to get to the free-throw line — the Heat needed improved play from elsewhere to pull out a 104-94 victory in Game 3, and they got it in forward Chris Bosh and reserve guard Norris Cole.
Bosh was aggressive all night for the undersized Heat, scoring 20 points on an efficient 8-of-16 shooting and grabbed a playoff career-high 19 rebounds, helping Miami to a two-rebound advantage on the glass. Cole played the last 14 minutes in place of starter Mario Chalmers, finishing Miami’s Game 3 win with 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including a pair of key shots and tenacious defense on Chicago’s Nate Robinson.
“They were big-time. When .C.B.' gets 12, 14-plus rebounds, we’re a dangerous team," James said. "It just shows his activity level, and he’s out there with one of the best rebounders in the game guarding him, play-for-play with Joakim. And for him to have 19 rebounds and for Norris to come off the bench and defend against Nate the way he did, and also contribute offensively with a big-time drive in the fourth and a big-time three as well, those two guys are the reason why we won the game.”
James has elevated his game in this his 10th season in the NBA. But in a best-of-seven series against one of the toughest defenses and one of the best strategically-sound coaches in the league, he knows the Heat won’t be at their best unless they receive contributions from more than just him and Wade.
In the first half, they received those contributions in place of James and Wade, who combined to score just 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting. That matched Bosh’s first-half total — he also had 10 rebounds in the opening half — and was one less than Cole, who continued his hot play from outside with 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting.
“I think with experience comes comfort," Cole said. “I’m seeing things more than one time and I’m able to adjust. I remember seeing things from last year and seeing things from earlier this season and I’m adjusting my game to it and keeping within the team concept.”
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Cole realized James’ distributor mentality early, and stayed aggressive. Meanwhile, Bosh held down the interior in a physical first half which saw Joakim Noah pick up a technical foul and Nazr Mohammed ejected after shoving James to the ground.
“People forget that just two years ago we were a halfcourt, grind-it-out team,” Bosh said. “When it comes down to it, we are going to have to get stops. We have to have that tough mind-frame.”
Wade and James inevitably found their aggressiveness in the second half, but as two of the top closers in the NBA went to leave their imprint on Game 3’s win, Bosh and Cole were there to join them.
A three-point play from Jimmy Butler gave the Bulls a 73-72 lead a minute into the final stanza, but Bosh connected on a 3-pointer the next trip down to give the Heat the lead for good.
The Bulls were able to stay within two possessions down the stretch, but after a quick 3-0 Chicago run decreased Miami’s deficit to 85-83, Cole drove down the paint and finishing on a finger roll to push the lead back out to four.
And though James’ clutch 3-pointer and traditional three-point play late were crucial, the two most important role players — Bosh and Cole — combined to form perhaps the biggest play of the game when Cole took a pass from Bosh and connected on a 3-pointer from the right wing, giving the Heat a game-high eight-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
“I’m putting up a lot of reps and understand the spacing on our team and have the confidence to knock it down,” Cole said. “It’s just being in the gym, being the first one to practice and the last one to leave.”
Cole also guarded Nate Robinson the entire fourth quarter. The 5-foot-9 offensive sparkplug entered Friday night averaging more than eight points per fourth quarter, but Cole — known for his defensive scrappiness — held Robinson to two points on 1-of-4 shooting before Robinson notched a dunk with the game out of reach.
“Norris has been playing unbelievable for us, coming in defensively," Wade said. "Nate is one of the toughest guys to guard, just trying to keep a body in front of him. But offensively he’s making shots, making some big plays down the stretch.”
If the Heat do go on to win a second-straight NBA title, it will be because of James’ historically good play and Wade’s ability to play efficient as the Heat’s No. 2. But along the way, Miami knows it will need more than just those two to play at its best.
“Norris is a tough competitor. He was most noticed for his threes and driving down the lane tonight, but he made big plays for us all night,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “[Bosh’s play] was very important tonight. He has to be big for us, especially big at the rim, and he did that for us.”