‘Birdman’ helps Miami Heat soar to top record in East

Chris Andersen continues to supply paint presence and hustle off the Miami Heat's bench.

Joe Camporeale/Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI — Chris Andersen certainly stands out as a unique Bird when stepping on the court with a Mohawk and a body decorated with colorful tattoos.

Focused and intense during play, Andersen often looks like a kid having fun by smiling or exchanging a slap with a teammate after the whistle blows.

Occasionally, the Birdman really gets the Heat crowd going by flapping his arms as if in flight.

But make no mistake, this Bird can play. In fact, taking the Big Three out of the mix, Andersen very well might be Miami’s most valuable player this season.

Just where would the Heat be without their Birdman?

"We’d be in a more difficult situation, I think," forward/center Chris Bosh said following Miami’s 93-83 victory against Toronto on Monday night. 

"I like to think of us having him. He’s just a phenomenal player. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s seen a lot throughout this league, and that helps us out."

Andersen has averaged 6.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 19.6 minutes off the bench for Miami, which began Tuesday percentage points ahead of Indiana for top seed in the Eastern Conference.

More than the numbers, however, Andersen supplies paint presence and hustle that often results in blocks, second-chance points and help defense.

"He gives us that energy coming off the bench. He does a phenomenal job," Bosh said. "He’s found his niche in this league and he plays it very well."

Andersen, who’ll turn 36 in July, signed with the Heat in January 2013. An initial 10-day contract became permanent as he helped fuel a 27-game winning streak and eventual Heat repeat as NBA champions. The forward’s highlights included shooting 15 of 15 through the first five games against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals.

This season, the Birdman has elevated his game.

"He has a much better idea of what we’re doing," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Last year, he was just running around wild trying to make plays, which was great. To try to teach him our system fully, it really took until, probably, the second round of the playoffs where he had a comfort level about what we’re doing.

"The more he became comfortable with our system, the quicker, more athletic and more energy it seemed like he had because he wasn’t thinking. It’s instinctual right now."

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Andersen prefers to talk with his play. Asked if he agreed with Spoelstra’s assessment, the 6-foot-10, 245-pounder nodded four times in agreement. About 10 seconds of silence was followed by a response.

"I’ve been here longer. I had to learn the system," he said. "We have to figure out how each one of the players plays, where they’€™re going to be at, learn their knicks and their knacks. I know ’em now."

A good example of that familiarity often occurs when Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or another player drives the lane before dishing to an open Birdman, who finishes with a slam.

"I know Bird’s usually guarded by a shot blocker," Chalmers said. "Anytime I get to the lane, a shot blocker’s going to come (at me), so I give the package to Bird. I know where he’s going to be. 

"A package deal." 

Spoelstra said the Heat had to tried to acquire Andersen for several years before finally signing him.

"He fits our personality, he fits the way we play defensively," Spoelstra said. "Offensively, in our spacing, he finds open gaps at the rim and gives us that vertical spacing which is key."

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Now in his 12th season, Andersen is the only NBA player produced by Blinn College. His days at the Texas junior college led to practicing with a future teammate.

"I don’t think he had any tattoos … maybe he had one," said Heat forward Rashard Lewis, who worked out with the pre-NBA Birdman in Houston. "He’s the same guy, same personality he was a long time ago. Loves basketball, always works hard, always played his role as a shot blocker and rebounder. Off the court, the same person.

"I think a lot of people look at him and think he’s a mean guy, but he’s far from that. He’s a great guy. He’s just a shy person." 

Born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised in Iola, Texas, Andersen attended Blinn for a year, then played in China and the minor leagues before signing with Denver in 2001. He spent three years with the Nuggets, three seasons with New Orleans, and four more with Denver. He also missed the 2006-07 season after violating the league’s anti-drug policy by testing positive for a banned substance.

That seems like a lifetime ago, as Andersen clearly has bought into a Heat culture that’s not for everyone. Off the court, the Birdman has done much charity work.

"Him being from where he’s from, I kind of knew … I could give a pretty good estimate of what kind of person he was," said Bosh, a Dallas native whose relatives include Blinn products. "Chris is a great dude."

You can follow Charlie McCarthy on Twitter @mccarthy_chas or email him at mac1763@bellsouth.net.