In many ways, Chris Andersen proved to be the perfect addition to the Miami Heat this season. A hard-nosed, aggressive defender willing to attack the boards and do the dirty work in the paint, the creature better known as Birdman gives the league's alpha dogs an added dose of physicality layered in possible insanity.
When he's going well, it's a hurricane of elbows and limbs, gusting around the court unnerving opponents as his more offensively inclined teammates pile up points. However, as we saw during his incident with Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5, Birdman's "wild-card" nature can be a curse as much as a blessing.
With Andersen now suspended for Game 6 as a result of his actions during the previous contest, the Heat will need to adjust to losing a rare player capable of going bump-for-bump against the rock-'em, sock-'em Indiana Pacers. On the cusp of another NBA Finals berth, the pressure's on someone else to fill the gap.
For a team with such celebrated star players, the Heat actually boast a pretty impressive array of bench guys. Beyond Andersen, Miami uses a host of players filling specific roles: Ray Allen, shooting specialist; Shane Battier, 3-and-D master; Udonis Haslem, big-man bruiser. If LeBron is the engine powering this team, these guys are the electric wiring that keeps everything running.
However, they'll need to step up in a different way Saturday. Without Andersen, the Heat no longer have their solidified rotation with cookie-cutter job descriptions. Instead, Game 6 will likely see Miami trying a number of different looks, with guys possibly playing roles they haven't filled in weeks.
The player most likely to see an increased slice of action Saturday is Haslem. Coming off a great performance in Game 5, where he recorded 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting as Miami found itself in need of a boost, it's easy to hope for a similar effort this time around.
However, if Haslem was consistently that kind of player, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead, the Heat will hope that Udonis can deliver another exceptional effort, and turn to Rashard Lewis or even Joel Anthony if things aren't working.
Should the Heat be forced to dig into the reserves of their reserves, Anthony and Lewis obviously bring very different qualities to the table. Anthony could be considered a poor man's Andersen in many ways -- he was adequate enough to play a role in last year's title run, but there's a reason Birdman took a big chunk of his minutes this year.
Playing Lewis would effectively signal Miami giving up the battle in the post in favor of spacing the floor to free up shooters. It's essentially the strategy New York used to get knocked out of the postseason by Indiana, but that admittedly ignores two things: 1. The Knicks nearly won that series; 2. Miami is much more talented than New York.
So don't be surprised if the Heat roll out some looks that seek to really space the floor and challenge Indiana to go shot-for-shot. Many of the team's most successful lineups this season featured a single man in the middle surrounded by LeBron James and talented shooters, a strategy that could be employed consistently in Game 6.
No matter what, the Heat will likely lose something on defense without Andersen, who helped muscle the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West down low. But it's possible they gain something on offense in exchange, even after Birdman shot a perfect 15-for-15 in the first five games against Indiana.
Should the Pacers catch this team on a hot shooting night from beyond the arc, it would likely take absolute domination in the post to extend the series.
Last season, the Heat worked through an almost identical situation to put away Indiana in the East semifinals. Needing to adjust to the Game 6 suspension of Haslem, Miami got 34 solid minutes out of Anthony as James and Wade powered the victory.
Those were different teams in 2012, though, and Miami will need to make different adjustments this time around. It likely means more shooters, more spacing and a gamble on knocking down long-distance jumpers. With a roster like the Heat's, it's probably a risk worth taking.