The Heat played well through the first three quarters, yet they couldn't quite pull away from even the Average Joes of the league—in this case, the Bucks. Miami held a tenuous three-point advantage at the time as Milwaukee's big men took the Heat to task inside.
Then the fourth quarter began, the sense of urgency set in, and the Heat kicked it into high gear. In the blink of an eye (i.e. 2:23 of game time), Miami had expanded its lead to 15 by way of a 12-0 run.
At the center of that spurt was none other than Chris Andersen.
On Miami's first possession of the quarter, the Birdman corralled not one, but two offensive rebounds before completing a three-point play. After a driving layup by LeBron James and a pair of free throws from Norris Cole, Andersen took a pass from Ray Allen and came through with another score.
All the while, Andersen was busy making life difficult among the trees for Milwaukee's aggressive guards on the defensive end, even grabbing the board that later led to Cole's run-capping three.
By the end of the game, the Birdman had tallied 10 points, six rebounds and a block in just 12-plus minutes. The Heat were able to hold off the Bucks, 98-86, to take a 2-0 lead in the opening-round playoff series. He posted a similar line (10 points, seven rebounds, one assist in 16-plus minutes) during Miami's 23-point win in Game 1.
As it happens, that fourth-quarter run was the difference in the game. Andersen was the difference-maker in that surge, just as he has been for the Heat since he signed on in late January.
A week after making his debut for Miami, the defending champions embarked upon what would become a historic 27-game winning streak. On the whole, the Heat now own a record of 41-3 when Andersen plays.
That is surprising, if not downright baffling, when you consider that Andersen had failed to find work in the Association for more than six months after he was amnestied by the Denver Nuggets this past July.
For the Heat, Andersen's apparent impact makes perfect sense. Miami's puzzle wasn't complete, even after a sprint to the 2012 title. The Heat needed another big man who could run the floor, protect the rim and rebound without being a total liability on the offensive end (I'm looking at you, Joel Anthony). They also needed a spark plug to energize their talented-but-inconsistent second unit.
They didn't need him to play extensive minutes, either. Andersen fit all those criteria, along with the one most crucial to his joining the Heat: his lack of concurrent employment.
In three months, the Birdman has gone from a short-term afterthought to an integral piece of the puzzle, particularly in these playoffs. So far, the Heat have outscored the Bucks by 22 points in Andersen's 29 minutes.
They've also collected an astronomical 40 percent of their own misses with Andersen on the floor. If they were to play a 100-possession game against the Bucks in which Andersen played every minute, the Heat would win by a shade over 40 points (per NBA.com).
Granted, the samples from which these numbers are drawn are so small as to be statistically insignificant. But they point—in rather emphatic, exaggerated fashion—to a trend that's been building since winter: that Chris Andersen is Miami's "X-factor."
And since the Heat are the prohibitive favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy once again, he's the "X-factor" of the 2013 postseason. This does nothing to diminish the importance of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the bigger picture for the Heat.
LeBron is still everybody's MVP, the versatile fulcrum upon whose talents Miami's fate ultimately rests. Wade is still the best sidekick in the game (sorry, Russell Westbrook), who's shown that he can channel his inner Emeril Lagasse from time to time. Chris Bosh is still the Heat's best and most important big, with the length to rebound and bother shots, and the shooting touch to stretch opposing defenses in Miami's small-ball scheme.
Ray Allen also remains as dangerous a threat as ever from behind the three-point line.
That core, along with its supporting cast, is and probably would've been fully capable of lifting the Heat to their second consecutive championship and third straight appearance in the NBA Finals. Andersen is merely the icing on the proverbial cake. He's the one who elevates the Heat from favorites to prohibitive favorites.
He transforms a presumptive sprint to the title into an amazing journey worth relishing, even if we already know how it will end.
That was all on brilliant display during that 2:23 stretch to start the fourth quarter against the Bucks. It has been since Andersen first donned a Heat jersey on Jan. 25, and it likely will be throughout Miami's march back to the top of the mountain.
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