On a night when Miami Heat's forward LeBron James scored a game-high 29
points, guard Dwyane Wade scored 24 and Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose
scored 21, there was no doubt in anyone's mind on who the
difference-maker was in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
"He's the player of this game," Wade said to ESPN's Michael Wallace. "We don't win this game without him. That's our warrior, our heartbeat of the team. And he showed it today."
Wade wasn't talking about James, Chris Bosh or any Heat starter, he was talking about Udonis Haslem.
It was Haslem's out-of-nowhere performance that helped lift the Heat, on the court and mentally. People forget, Haslem's role on the Heat is very similar to what Joakim Noah is on the Bulls. Those same words Bulls fans use for Noah -- tough, activity, enforcer, grinder -- are the ones Heat fans use for Haslem, who had a tough journey into the NBA going undrafted in 2002.
That's the story for Haslem, who's gone through ups and downs yet has managed to put his imprints on the Heat's franchise, community and, most importantly, team.
"He's an absolute championship warrior," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Haslem. "Really, what he did [Wednesday] was remarkable. He hasn't really been in a game, and now, I question myself for not trying him earlier."
Case in point, Haslem is given just four minutes in Game 1 of the series, and when the Heat's frontline experiences some foul issues, he's given a chance. And like Haslem has throughout his career, he took it and ran away with it.
As Spoelstra said, it truly is remarkable what Haslem did in the Heat's 85-75 victory over the Bulls in Game 2 to even the series 1-1 heading back to Miami for Games 3 and 4.
Haslem scored 13 points and added five rebounds, three offensive, two steals and a block in 23 minutes. He hadn't scored since November 20, as a left foot injury forced him to miss 69 regular-season games and most of the postseason.
Haslem returned in Game 4 versus the Boston Celtics in the second round, however, missed one shot in three minutes played. He sat out the series clinching Game 5. And in four minutes in Game 1 versus the Bulls, missed his lone field-goal attempt.
He started off slow on Wednesday, too, missing two jumpers in the second quarter. Still, you could tell he had his game face on and brought energy early. With Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire, the Heat are regulated to playing four-on-five most of the time as neither player is much of a threat.
It allowed Carlos Boozer, who's a shell of himself and had another poor playoff performance with seven points in Game 2, to basically roam around and stay in the paint. He's a poor defender, so putting him on a non-option offensively plays right into the Bulls' hands.
But Haslem is different. He's able to knock down the midrange jumper with decent consistency, going two of five from 15-feet and out in the second half. If Haslem is able to knock down the midrange shot, the Bulls defense will be in some trouble because they've commited to clogging up the paint whenever Wade or James drives.
Haslem being able to hit the 15-footer is another weapon in the Heat's offense, and it'll be interesting to see if Wade, James and the Heat look for Haslem off more pick-and-rolls and screens.
It's his energy, however, that was contagious. His value goes way beyond the numbers. Haslem's part of the Heat's core, providing leadership, presence even without scoring. It's the little things that matter, and Haslem sures up for the lack of hustle plays from other Heat.
In Game 1, the Heat seemed to lack toughness, as they got outrebounded 45-33. The Heat returned the favor in Game 2 with 45 rebounds to the Bulls' 41 (35-24 in the Heat's favor on defensive rebounds.) It seemed, at least early on, that the Bulls were heading for the same success on the glass as Game 1, as they piled up eight offensive rebounds in the first quarter.
When Haslem was brought into the game in the second quarter, things started to change, and TNT commentator Steve Kerr alluded to that on the air: the game started to turn the Heat's way in the second quarter, when they outscored the Bulls 29-20 to take a 48-46 lead at halftime.
Will Haslem bring the same energy in Game 2 on Sunday as he had on Wednesday? Who knows, though it certainly changed the complexion of the game as Haslem was tapping out, batting rebounds back out for second-chance opportunities for the Heat.
He was also doing a great job boxing out Noah, who was having his way with the much smaller, weaker Anthony and slower Magloire.
Do you believe for a second that Mike Miller's seven rebounds, six defensive, were actually his?
Even with James scoring nine of the Heat's last 12 points, the big story for the Heat -- and the game -- was Haslem.
But there will be questions coming into Game 3 for Haslem: Can he come out with that same energy, thrust as he had in Game 2? How will that surgically-repaired left foot respond?
We'll get the answers to those questions in a matter of days. Although, with the three days between games, Haslem will get a chance to rest. He should be ready to go to bang with the Bulls' big man.
With Haslem -- knocking down midrange jumpers to even throwing down two "posterizing" dunks -- looking in 2006 championship form, could the Heat decide to insert him into the starting lineup in place of Anthony?
Haslem is listed at 6-8 and Anthony's listed at 6-9, so there isn't much of a height gap between the two. Anthony does have more pounds on him, though Haslem's offensive game is at a different level than Anthony, who doesn't even look at the basket at any point of games. Defensively, Haslem moves around better than Anthony and is a master of taking offensive fouls.
It's unlikely that Spoelstra changes the starting lineup and elected to keep it the same after the 103-82 loss in Game 1. But if Haslem can back up his Game 2 performance with another solid game on Sunday, Speolstra could look into changing the starting lineup.
Plus/minus stats can be right on sometimes, dead wrong the others. Wednesday night is one of the latter, as the Heat were -11 with Haslem on the court and +16 with Anthony.
Yeah, that zero-point, two-rebound line for Anthony is what changed the game.
James' late fourth quarter surge, scoring nine of the Heat's last 12 points, was huge, as it essentially put the Bulls away. Both teams were struggling for offense and James' five-point stretch to give the Heat a 78-73 lead with just over three minutes to play was all that the Heat needed with the Bulls scoring just two points in the final seven minutes.
The difference -- and even James admitted -- was the man they call "UD."
"He gets the game ball," James said to TNT's Craig Sager after Game 2.
He's right. Haslem, not James or Wade, changed Game 2. It wasn't the sexy star performance, but it was the unsung hero, change-the-game-through-hustle performance. One that the Bulls get from Noah and Taj Gibson, but for the Heat, Haslem's was better -- and needed.
He didn't have the game-high in points, rebounds, steals or blocks. But when the Heat walked off the court on Wednesday with a win, they all knew who changed the game, which big man turned them from looking soft to tough. The hard-nosed, undrafted 6-8 forward, Udonis Haslem.