Bosh's return comes at huge time in Heat title run

MIAMI (AP) — Chris Bosh has watched the birth of his son, collapsed to the court in agony with a strained abdominal muscle, seen his team sputter many times during nine games without him, then dealt with the death of a masseuse who was stricken at his home.

And all since this Miami Heat playoff run began.

"I think about those things every day," Bosh said.

His run of emotional ebbs and flows in recent weeks is on the upswing again. He's returning to the NBA finals, and if the Heat are going to win it this time Bosh likely will have to play a major role when they take on the Oklahoma City Thunder starting on Tuesday night.

His importance is unquestioned, at least by the Heat.

Where he exactly fits in the rotation these days, that's still in some doubt. Bosh says it's "irrelevant" as long as he's getting minutes.

He didn't start any of the three games he played in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. But with the series — and the entirety of a championship-or-bust season — on the line in the fourth quarter of Game 7, Bosh hit perhaps the most important shot of all, a 3-pointer that helped kickstart what became a 20-6 run to end the game.

Bosh may be viewed as the third wheel of Miami's Big Three by those on the outside. Within the Heat locker room, maybe no other player is more valued, especially by the other two sides of the superstar Heat triangle, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

"Chris is big," James said after Game 7.

"Huge," Wade added.

"Game ball automatically goes to him," James continued. "Without his production tonight, we don't win. ... We haven't had that type of activity, that firepower off the bench since we got here. It's unique. It's very unique that CB is coming off the bench, but it may be something great for us."

For two years, the debate about Bosh's role on the Heat has largely revolved around him being either a power forward or a center.

Now, it's between him being a starter or a finisher.

He played the entire fourth quarter of Game 7 against Boston, sans the final few seconds after Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took him out with the outcome decided. Bosh finished with 19 points and eight rebounds — virtually mirroring his regular season averages, and just the fourth time a Heat player put up those numbers in a playoff game as a reserve.

"I just wanted to get out there as soon as possible and contribute to this team," Bosh said. "That's all I kept thinking about from the moment I went out against Indiana in the second round. It was very deflating at first, but I just had to keep my mind. That 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."

Bosh got hurt in Game 1 of the Indiana series. Strained abdominal muscles are tricky, in that rest is often the best way to heal them. But in the midst of the NBA playoffs, Bosh had to keep up some level of conditioning as well.

Somehow, the balancing act worked, even amid other massive challenges.

Bosh and his wife Adrienne welcomed a newborn into the world during Miami's first-round series against New York. He has been dealing with visitation issues involving his first child, an ongoing fight that he rarely speaks publicly about. And just this past week, a masseuse Bosh and his wife have used at times was summoned to their home, where she fell ill suddenly and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Less than 24 hours after that, Bosh was back on the court for the first time since getting hurt, fighting through all sorts of emotions.

"What I've experienced, what I've seen," Bosh said. "One thing that has helped me is that you never know when you'll be able to play this game again. You never know what tomorrow brings. And so you might as well have fun, let it all hang out and just do what you were put on this Earth to do while you're here. And I just want to maximize my time playing this game. I know I can't play it forever."

He was at his best in Game 7, shooting 8 for 10, making three 3-pointers for the first time as a pro — the last time he did it, Cornell was the opponent.

"He was the X-factor," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said afterward. "He gave them exactly what they needed."

Bosh left the floor in tears after Miami fell in six games to the Dallas Mavericks in last season's finals, his moment of anguish captured by television cameras that he didn't know were rolling on the hallway connecting the court with the Heat locker room.

He'd do anything to avoid that scene again, which is why he isn't wrapped up in starting or not starting. It's an intriguing possibility — the Heat could keep using Bosh off the bench, much in the same way Oklahoma City uses the third member of its version of a Big Three, James Harden, as a reserve to help take some of the pressure off Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Whatever works, Bosh said.

"Even though we didn't admit it, we all had a big pit in our stomach when we saw him walking off the court in Game 1 of the Indiana series," Spoelstra said. "We all shuddered at the thought (of him missing the rest of the playoffs). We played tough, but we knew that for two years he had been our most important player, because he makes it all work."

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