Udonis Haslem is back in the starting lineup for the Heat’s playoff race, and his contributions this week helped the team score two of its most important victories of the season.
Haslem started and played 17 minutes in the Heat’s victory against the Cavaliers on Monday. In the win against the Portland Trail Blazers, Haslem went for 31 minutes and had seven points and five rebounds. He started his third consecutive game on Friday against the Denver Nuggets.
At power forward for now, Haslem’s positions and roles and minutes have varied this season. What hasn’t changed is Haslem’s contributions as a team leader, which coach Erik Spoelstra emphasized before the game.
“He has been an influence all year long and I think that is one great message for young players in this league,” Spoelstra said. “First of all, that he has been able to carve out a 12-year career in one place and not drafted and win three championships with this organization.
“And although he is the all-time leading rebounder for this organization, he has been able to impact teams in so many different ways than just statistics.”
For Spoelstra, Haslem epitomizes professionalism in the NBA. That’s no new revelation, of course. The Heat’s coach has a picture of Haslem in his office and calls the team’s longtime co-captain a “warrior.” On Friday, Haslem referred to Haslem twice in the span of a few minutes as a “Heat lifer.” That’s the latest catchphrase for key core players such as Haslem, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers.
Histrionics aside, Haslem has served an important purpose during this crucial stretch of games. For starters, he has played well. His defense was a key against the Cavs, he made the second three-pointer of his career Wednesday against Portland, and on Friday he had a driving dunk. In addition to those things, Haslem has set an important example for Hassan Whiteside, and Whiteside has remained grounded and focused since his rash of ejections and technical fouls.
Whiteside had a potentially problematic matchup against the Nuggets with rookie center Jusuf Nurkic, who already has a reputation for talking trash and throwing his 7-foot, 280-pound frame around. Whiteside was the more poised of the two players, with Nurkic picking up two fouls in the first quarter. In the second quarter, Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried shoved Whiteside to the ground, and the Heat’s young center didn’t retaliate.
Wade and point guard Goran Dragic entered Friday’s game combining to shoot 49.3 percent from the field. That statistic is tops among the league’s starting backcourts. Spoelstra said that experience and basketball smarts have helped with the easy transition. The Heat traded for Dragic on Feb. 19, the trade deadline.
Against Denver, Dragic shot 9 of 14 from the field and Wade 9 of 18 as the duo combined for 40 points.
“Both have a great feel for the game, both have a lot of experience. Goran has played a lot of years in this league, and they both can play with the ball, they both can play off the ball,” Spoelstra said. “We hoped that they would have that kind of connection, we anticipated that they would. You don’t really know until guys actually get out on the court and start playing together, but they felt very comfortable playing together right away, and the part you like about it is they help make each other better.”