By Dylan Barmmer
It seems like Chris Andersen has been a key component in the HEAT's culture of hard work and winning basketball for a long time.
In reality, however, the sinewy, savvy 6-foot-10, 228-pound forward/center has only been with the HEAT since he signed his first 10-day contract with the club on Jan. 20 of this year.
But in those four-and-a-half months, the 34-year-old Andersen has helped the HEAT accomplish and win so much, so often, it's almost mind-bending to consider. So that sense of long-term, long-time familiarity makes sense, once you look at all Andersen's meant to this record-setting, NBA Finals-bound HEAT team.
In 42 regular-season games in a HEAT uniform, Andersen averaged 4.9 points, 4.1 rebounds 1.0 blocks, 0.4 steals and 0.4 assists in just 14.9 minutes per game off the bench. Playing in his 11th NBA season and for the first time in nearly a full calendar year, Andersen shot a career-best 57.7 percent from the field and a respectable 67.7 percent from the free-throw line. And most impressively and importantly of all, the HEAT compiled a stunning 39-3 record with Andersen in the playing rotation. The HEAT also ripped off a remarkable 27-game win streak en route to an NBA-best and franchise-record 66 wins.
The postseason has seen similar results – with one notable difference:
Andersen has taken his personal production, especially his offensive game, to a whole new level. And the wily veteran big man is now on the verge of winning his first NBA Championship.
And making NBA postseason history along the way.
In 15 games in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, Andersen has averaged 7.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 0.3 steals and 0.2 assists in 15.5 minutes per game. He's shot an eye-popping 82.6 percent from the field and an excellent 76.9 percent from the line. Andersen has taken 46 shots from the field, connecting on 38 of them, and hit 30-of-39 free-throw attempts. In short, he's been near-perfect on offense – and is actually on pace to set a NBA Playoffs record for field goal percentage in a single postseason.
That mark currently belongs to James Donaldson, who shot 75.0 percent in 10 games for the Dallas Mavericks in the 1986 NBA Playoffs. Former HEAT star and current HEAT Vice President of Player Programs Alonzo Mourning ranks third all-time on that list, having shot 70.5 percent from the field in 15 games of the 2005 Playoffs. Mourning also shot 70.3 percent in 21 postseason games when the HEAT claimed their first-ever NBA Championship to cap the 2006 Playoffs.
Andersen also ranks fourth on the HEAT in rebounding and second to only Chris Bosh in shot-blocking in these 2013 Playoffs – despite seeing less time on the floor than eight other teammates.
Andersen has scored 10 or more points four times, grabbed 5 or more rebounds six times and blocked at least 2 shots in seven games during the HEAT's exciting and intriguing playoff run. And he didn't waste any time in establishing himself during the franchise's third straight drive to the NBA Finals.
Andersen was an absolute force and the proverbial X-factor in the HEAT's first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging 8.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 0.5 steals and 0.5 assists in 14.8 minutes per game. He shot a blistering 81.3 percent from the field, connecting on 13-of-16 field goal attempts, and he scored 10 or more points and grabbed at least 6 rebounds in each of the first three games of the four-game series. The Bucks simply had no answer for Andersen, and current TNT studio analyst and one-time HEAT star Shaquille O'Neal began to creatively express his admiration of the energetic big man's passionate, productive play.
Andersen saw his production dip a bit in the HEAT's second-round series win over the more defensive-oriented Chicago Bulls, but he still managed to average 6.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 12.8 minutes per game. Andersen emerged as more of a shot-blocking force in that series, swatting 2 or more shots in 4 of the 5 games against the Bulls, and although his offensive impact was lessened, he once again rarely missed when he did shoot. Andersen connected on 75.0 percent of his field goal attempts (9-of-12) and 85.7 percent (12-of-14) from the free-throw line in the series, and his 9-point, 4-rebound, 2-block performance was pivotal in the HEAT's 88-65 road win in Game 4. Playing in front of a rowdy United Center crowd, Andersen and the HEAT held the proud Bulls to franchise all-time playoffs-low totals in points (65) and field-goal percentage (25.7 percent).
Then came the Eastern Conference Finals, by far the HEAT's toughest test yet. With his team up against its tallest, strongest, toughest and most accomplished postseason opponent yet, Andersen was at his very best. In fact, he was almost perfect on offense.
Through the first five games of the thrilling, back-and-forth, seven-game series, Andersen actually was perfect. He hit 18-of-18 field goal attempts, drawing frequent and near-obsessional praise for his offensive acumen from legendary play-by-play announcer Marv Albert. Andersen scored at least 7 points in each of the first three games, and was pivotal in the HEAT claiming an early 2-1 lead in a series that would end up stretching to a maximum seven games. When the HEAT opened the series with a hair-raising, nail-biting, buzzer-beating 103-102 win, Andersen was absolutely electric, scoring a playoffs-high 16 points, pulling down 5 rebounds, blocking a game-high 3 shots and snaring 1 steal in 18 live-wire minutes off the HEAT bench.
Andersen finished a truly remarkable 19-for-21 in six games played against Roy Hibbert, David West and the rugged, rim-protecting, defensive-minded Pacers. Andersen also averaged 7.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.5 steals in that thrilling series, and racked up 7 points, 5 rebounds and 1 steal in 17 minutes of the deciding and decisive 99-76 Game 7 victory at a raucous AmericanAirlines Arena.
But the most notable measurement of Andersen's impact on that series may have come in the one game he did not play in.
Suspended by the NBA for Game 6 in Indianapolis following a heated and hard-hitting exchange with Pacers reserve big man Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5, Andersen was confined to the team hotel that evening, and forced to endure an ugly 91-77 HEAT loss from afar. Hampered and slowed without the energy, defense, scoring and rebounding prowess of Andersen against the hard-charging, body-banging Pacers, the HEAT registered playoff-lows in points scored (77) and field-goal percentage (36.1 percent), and lost the battle on the boards by a decisive 53-33 margin.
All told, the HEAT are 12-3 with Andersen in the lineup during their third consecutive run to the NBA Finals. And 0-1 without him. Add that Andersen-infused playoff record to the 39-3 regular-season record, and the HEAT are 51-6 with Andersen in uniform and on the floor. That's an incredible 89.5 winning percentage over 57 games. And if you factor out games against teams not named the Indiana Pacers, those numbers improve to 51-3 and 94.4 percent.
Of course, those fantastic figures are the result of much more than merely Andersen's presence and play. But to a man, the HEAT have often extolled the wire-to-wire effort, high basketball IQ, engaging personality and selfless sacrifice of Andersen – with back-to-back NBA MVP LeBron James in particular citing Andersen's passionate play following several key victories.
And after the HEAT iced and eliminated the Pacers to set up a showdown with the Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs on Monday, June 3, Andersen was the first HEAT player to receive the Eastern Conference Championship Trophy from Mourning and HEAT Managing General Partner Micky Arison. Andersen proudly held the trophy aloft above his freshly shorn and spiked mohawk. And those who remained in the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd roared lustily in approval.
Of course, the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd always goes wild for Andersen, who fast became a fan favorite thanks to his colorful, gritty, aggressive and all-out style of play.
Andersen's motor seems to only have one gear. And it's always set to maximum overdrive.
And as much as Andersen clearly savored holding that silver Eastern Conference Championship Trophy aloft, he left no doubt that he's got his eyes, mind and heart locked in on an even shinier token of success – the gold Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
“It's amazing to hold that [Eastern Conference Championship Trophy],” Andersen said after that Game 7 win over the Pacers. “But I really want to hold up the other [Finals] trophy. I know there is another test at hand.”
A very big test now awaits in the form of the savvy, smart, seasoned San Antonio Spurs. But Chris Andersen is a very big man. With a very big appetite for success. And a very big drive to add a brand new accomplishment to an already decorated and diverse career in professional basketball:
Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals comes Thursday, June 6. And you can bet Andersen will come ready to play. And win.