Posted May 19 2011 11:23AM
CHICAGO -- Just when things looked bleakest, when the Miami Heat's frontcourt situation was headed from bad to worse to Juwan Howard, Udonis Haslem checked in.
That right there might have been enough for a headline, given its man-bites-dog rarity this season and postseason. But Haslem did more than just show up in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. He gave the Heat a planting of the heels, right out of a Pat Riley parable, both for himself and for the team that needed him so desperately.
Haslem brought starch to Miami's game when he entered out of necessity so early -- 4:23 left in the first quarter -- and stayed there, in body for a little more than 23 minutes but in spirit for the rest of the night. More than any other player, it was Haslem who gutted and willed Miami to its 85-75 victory Wednesday night at United Center to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1.
The 6-foot-8 forward, a defense-and-rebounding worker bee of a player, got in quickly not because Miami coach Erik Spoelstra knew he could count on Haslem but because he knew that, at that moment, he could count on no one else.
Starting center Joel Anthony picked up two fouls before the first quarter was half over. Replacement Jamaal Magloire was even worse, getting his first four seconds after he subbed for Anthony and a second less than two minutes later. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier were on the bench in suits again, inactive despite Miami's size and rebounding problems in Game 1. Howard? Uh, no ...
So here came Haslem. And by the end, he had given the Heat 13 points, five rebounds, a block, a steal, crisp defensive rotations, pesky hands and a presence that served his team and lifted his teammates.
"He's an absolute championship warrior," Spoelstra said. "Really, what he did [in Game 2], it's remarkable. He hasn't been in, really, a game and now I question myself for not trying him earlier. But there was an incredible unknown. We hadn't seen him in a game.
"But two days ago before practice I walked with him. And there was something, a look in his eye, that I knew it was time."
Were he a bigger name -- had Haslem not been eclipsed from the start by Miami's free-agent superstar shopping spree or kept so neatly in his niche through eight NBA seasons -- what he did in Game 2 might have ranked as a Willis Reed moment. His injury wasn't as ghastly or as fresh as Rajon Rondo's in the Heat's previous series, but where the Boston point guard had adrenaline and a full sweat to get him past that dangling left arm for a night, Haslem had only rust.
He had watched the Heat's opening round against Philadelphia, finally getting on the court for a cameo in Game 4 against Boston (3:23, 0-for-1 FG). Haslem got thrown out there for another four minutes in Game 1 against Chicago but it was the same story: 0-for-1 FG, nothing else.
Too late. Not enough. Haslem hadn't even practiced with Chris Bosh until the other day and here they were, learning on the fly how to work down low together.
He flaked off the rust quickly, helping first on defense, then on the glass, then on the scoreboard. He didn't try a shot in 12 first-half minutes and, after returning at 5:29 of the third quarter, went with the safe stuff: Dunk. And dunk. That second one put Miami up 67-56, its biggest lead, with 3:32 left in the quarter. In those final minutes, Haslem got up, and made, a pair of 19-foot jumpers.
He was back. Haslem scored four baskets in the third, one more than Chicago guard Derrick Rose and as many as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James combined. "Inspirational," Spoelstra called it.
"That's who he has been his entire career," the Miami coach said. "He has always led us in charges taken, hits, dives on the floor. We chart all those things -- he's the all-time leader in all our defensive categories.
"He's smart, he's tough, he does all the little intangibles. And that's why we've always said that the image of a Miami Heat player, that's Udonis Haslem."
Not that Haslem was invited onto the stage with the smoke machine and the bright lights last July. But here he was, 10 months later, giving the Heat so much -- with so little preparation and time to adapt -- that it all but forced his teammates, stars and others, to follow.
The entire Heat rotation went Udonis Haslem on Chicago in the second half. They outrebounded the Bulls 25-21, limited them to 11-for-37 shooting (29.7 percent) and hustled to the other end for 11 fast-break points. Finally, when Chicago tied it at 73-73 with 7:16 to play, the Heat planted their heels at the end the way Haslem had done at the start.
"That's what we've been missing out there all year without him," Wade said, lauding Haslem's "determination and heart." "He came back early before he was supposed to with that injury and showed what he was made of."
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: "He's one of those guys that you really can't measure him statistically. He brings a lot of toughness to their team, high-energy guy, terrific defensively."
All that sitting Haslem had done was not for naught, as it turned out. He had seen, up close, the failures in Game 1 and had come ready -- whether Spoelstra needed him, called on him or not -- to fix them. "I was seeing [Chicago] guys running to the basket without bodies being put on them," he said, recalling the Bulls' 19 offensive rebounds and 45-33 edge overall. "That's the first thing, we have to hit guys when shots go up. My main focus was not scoring, it was defending and rebounding."
Now he has Spoelstra to thank for this timely return, along with Anthony, Magloire and the Bulls who got those two Miami bigs into foul trouble. Oh, and someone else.
"I want to thank the Man upstairs," Haslem said. "It's been a long road. My teammates have been patient with me, my coaching staff, my family. There's a lot of people that had to do with the success tonight. If we don't win this game, my contributions mean nothing."
His season may have meant nothing, but Udonis Haslem's contributions in Game 2 meant everything.
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