He's undersized, he was undrafted, he'll never be an All-Star and he was injured for all but 13 games this season. Meet Udonis Haslem, who reduced the salaries of the Heat's superstars by millions of dollars last summer—but who may yet pay them back with an NBA championship next month.
Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh were able to appreciate their investment in Haslem in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals at Chicago, when he entered in the eighth minute. The Bulls were attacking the basket and dominating the glass—picking up where they left off in their convincing Game 1 win—and Heat centers Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire had been forced to the bench with two fouls each. But out of misfortune came an unexpected dose of fortune: Walking to the scorers' table was the 6'8" Haslem, who had zero points and zero rebounds in his two previous brief appearances of this postseason.
He changed the series. Miami, which had lost all four previous games to Chicago this season, suddenly had the key to fixing all of its problems. Over Games 2 and 3 the Heat would block 14 shots and limit the NBA's top seed to 37.7% shooting from the field and 80 points per game while knocking the league's MVP, point guard Derrick Rose, off his hard-driving game. Miami would steal home court advantage while seizing a 2--1 series lead and emerge more authoritatively than ever as the favorite to win the championship. All of this came thanks to Haslem and the two-inch screw drilled into the top of his size-18 left foot. "He's the heartbeat of our team," said Wade on Sunday after a 96--85 victory in Game 3. "Our team is that much better with U.D. being back."
How can one recently hobbled substitute make such a comprehensive difference, especially on this star-driven team? Aren't Wade, James and Bosh supposed to be elevating the role players? For all the high style of South Beach, blue-collar is the preferred ethic in the Heat locker room, where defense is preached far more than offense and Haslem is routinely ennobled as "our warrior" by coach Erik Spoelstra. All season something had been missing from the team, even as its Big Three worked frantically to develop a cohesive understanding of how to play off one another and grow from the mistakes of a 9--8 start or a late five-game losing streak (which included an early March loss to the Bulls). It turns out there was only so much Miami could accomplish in Haslem's absence—and now that he's back, there may be nothing left to prevent it from winning the playoffs' final game.
Haslem's influence was both fundamental and inspirational. He showed out to the perimeter against Rose and still sprinted back in time to defend power forward Carlos Boozer, center Joakim Noah or backup big man Taj Gibson. Though he hadn't played a meaningful, productive minute since Nov. 20, when he planted his foot while playing defense against the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph and suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament, Haslem spent 23 minutes in Game 2 diving for loose balls, boxing out taller Bulls, blocking a shot, making a steal, dunking three times—including one in transition punctuated by a Knievelesque crash landing under the basket—and burying elbow jumpers that helped space the floor for his more famous teammates. If he was able to accomplish all of that following an injury that should have ended his season, then the least they could do would be to match his effort: Miami finished with 45 boards to Chicago's 41, the only time the Heat has outrebounded the Bulls this season.
Call it a package deal at a bargain price. Last July 12, Haslem, a free agent after averaging 10.0 points and 8.1 rebounds in seven seasons with the Heat, was in team president Pat Riley's office to say goodbye. He didn't want to leave, having been born and raised in Miami before he was discovered and transformed by Riley after a four-year career at Florida. And while he was willing to take substantially less than the five-year, $34 million offers he had from the Mavericks and the Nuggets, he believed that expenditures to the new Big Three would leave the team no cap space to re-sign him. What he didn't realize was that Wade, with whom he had teamed to win the title in 2006, had spent that morning asking James and Bosh to join him in giving up $15 million to $17 million each in their six-year contracts to make room for Riley to sign both Haslem and free-agent swingman Mike Miller. Their answer, according to all three, was an instantaneous yes. By the end of the day, Haslem was re-signing for five years at $20 million, while Miller was inked for $29 million over five years.
"That's rare in today's society, because you have guys that don't even know me and make a sacrifice like that in order for me to be part of this team," says the 30-year-old Haslem. "D-Wade, that's no surprise because that's my brother. The other two guys don't know me well, but they respect what I do. Usually athletes get criticized for being selfish; lo and behold we got criticized for being unselfish. But that's another story."
Actually, it's all part of the potential championship narrative, which took a few painful turns in the ensuing months. Two weeks after he re-signed, Haslem's mother, Debra, died at age 53 after a two-year battle with cervical cancer. Haslem poured his heart into preparing to win a second ring, but less than four weeks later he was sidelined—so then he poured his heart into coming back, despite a prognosis that had him likely missing the season. The screw was chiseled into his foot arthroscopically ("Tap-tap-tap," says Haslem, imitating the painful procedure) in order to accelerate the healing. He was in the weight room lifting in spite of the cast he wore for two months, and on the day in January that the cast was replaced with a walking boot, he was on the floor shooting with assistant coach Keith Askins. If Haslem could push through the pain just to return and do hard work around the basket, then what was to prevent the bigger names from getting their hands dirty too?
The stubborn Bulls positioned themselves to win every meeting before losing their way in the closing minutes of Games 2 and 3. Here is the role experience was playing: Wade, Haslem and James had all reached the NBA Finals and spent the season preparing themselves to win at this highly intensive level. They already understood what the Bulls were beginning to learn.
Haslem's return has helped fulfill the original vision of Riley and Spoelstra, who for the first time are able to pair him and Miller with the rest of the rotation. (Miller missed the first 29 games of the season with a right thumb injury, so Game 2 was the first time he and Haslem, his former Florida teammate, appeared on the floor together this season.) The Heat's unrivaled athleticism has created an intimidating and speedy response to the rule changes that have enabled perimeter stars like Rose to flourish: With Haslem helping Bosh and Anthony to close down the paint, James and Wade have been flying crisscross patterns during the Bulls' half-court attack, closing out on three-point shooters—Chicago was 3 for 20 in Game 2—or collapsing inside to smother shots around the rim, where Rose makes his living. In three regular-season games and the series opener, Rose averaged 28.8 points on 44.8% shooting; in Games 2 and 3 he averaged 20.5 and shot 35.7%. The leaguewide fear last summer that Wade and James would be unstoppable in transition has come true. But it is their athleticism at the defensive end that promises to have even more chilling consequences.