BOSTON It's hard to imagine that the biggest X-factor in the Eastern Conference finals between Boston and Miami is a seven-time all-star.
But that's the reality of this Celtics-Heat series, with the outcome in tonight's Game 6 matchup hinging heavily on the play of Chris Bosh.
The 6-foot-9 Heat forward returned from a nine-game absence (abdominal strain) in Boston's Game 5 victory at Miami on Tuesday, tallying nine points along with seven rebounds (six offensive) in just over 14 minutes.
Following the Heat loss, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra has been heavily criticized for not using Bosh at all in the fourth quarter when the game was up for grabs.
"I thought those are the decisions you have to make as a head coach," Spoelstra said. "I know after the fact those can always be secondguessed. But we're treading in kind of new waters right now, and he had been out quite a while. But he'll play more (in Game 6)."
And that will put even more pressure on a Celtics defense that has already had its hands full with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
"You know, I was very surprised how good he looked (in Game 5)," C's coach Doc Rivers said of Bosh. "He looked like he had been playing. So we were very surprised with that."
But as far as why Bosh didn't play more in Game 5, Rivers wasn't about to touch that question.
"I will stay away from that," Rivers said. "That's the other thing. I didn't notice it until after the game. That's how focused we were. I was really focused on us. Then after the game when one of my coaches brought it up, I said, well, yeah, that's interesting. But I'm sure there was a reason."
For the Celtics, why Bosh wasn't on the floor down the stretch isn't important. He will play tonight, more than he did in Game 5. And dealing with that will be more than enough of a challenge for the Celtics.
Indeed, Bosh's play will be a major subplot to follow in tonight's game. Here are some other keys to keep tabs on as the Celtics hope to continue their dominance at home (8-1 in the playoffs) needing just one win to move on to the NBA Finals for the third time in the Big Three era.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- Keeping Dwyane Wade in check in the first half has been a huge factor in Boston being in control of this series. He's averaging 22 points per game in the Conference finals, but only 5.8 of those points has come in the first half. More significant, he's connecting on just 27.5 percent of his shots in the first half, shooting 40 percent or less in every game thus far.
MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh: For the first time in the postseason, Kevin Garnett will not have a decisive advantage at the center position. In many ways, Garnett will have to deal with a mirror-image of himself in Bosh only younger. Both will score points, but the edge will go to which player does a better rebounding the ball.
PLAYER TO WATCH -- Three-time league MVP LeBron James is a must-see every game, but he's especially eye-grabbing in elimination games for all the wrong reasons. Between his years in Cleveland and Miami, James has been in eight elimination games and has emerged victorious just two times. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, James has averaged just 24.3 points in his last three elimination games. Not only are those numbers down from what he usually does scoring-wise in the playoffs, but those last three games? They all ended with James' team losing.
STAT TO TRACK -- Bench play tends to pick up at home, which bodes well for a Celtics' second unit that is coming off its first game in this series in which they outscored their Heat backup brethren, 19-16. Between Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling, the C's defensive duo has stepped up their game offensively by averaging 13 points off the bench in the Celtics last two games.