There are times during certain games when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra just walks away from the team huddle and lets Udonis Haslem have the floor.
Spoelstra understands his strengths as a leader, which is another way of saying he’s wise enough to know that Haslem, the Heat’s longtime co-captain and locker-room leader, can talk to players in a way no coach can possibly imitate or attempt.
Yes, that means Haslem can use some creative language that might be off limits for Spoelstra, but it also means that when Haslem speaks, it comes from a place of unquestioned selflessness. People have no choice but to listen because Haslem has sacrificed more playing time (and money) than anyone on the team.
“I think for the most of his career — yes, you can point to his double-doubles and rebounding — but the majority of U.D.’s influence and impact are the intangibles, the winning qualities,” Spoelstra said.
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Haslem has influenced the Heat plenty this season with his leadership, but most recently he has filled an important role on the court as the team struggles through another rash of injuries.
With every other frontline player out with an injury Sunday, Haslem had 18 points and 13 rebounds in the Heat’s victory against the Detroit Pistons.
Last week, Haslem played through an injury during the Heat’s road trip, and on Tuesday he could be in the starting lineup against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.
Haslem’s presence on the court comes at the most critical time of the season for the Heat, which is seventh in the East. With nine games left in the regular season, the Heat (34-39) now begins a difficult stretch of games that includes a three-game road trip to Cleveland, Detroit and Indiana.
The victory Sunday against the Pistons, a game perfectly suited for Haslem’s type of grit in the paint, could prove to be one of the most important of the season.
“You need confidence this time of year and guys that have been through these types of things always help, but just the stability of his voice I think brings confidence and a calmness to the team while emotions are running high,” Spoelstra said of Haslem. “Because everyone’s emotions and passions are into this, we know what we’re playing for, and I can’t say enough about the veteran stability he has been bringing this group.”
At times this season, Haslem has been completely out of the rotation. At other times, he has filled in for Josh McRoberts, Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen or Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside and Andersen both missed Sunday’s game but could be back in the rotation against the Spurs, who, like the Heat, are fighting for playoff seeding during the final three weeks of the season.
Whiteside has missed three games with a badly lacerated right hand. He cut it on the rim during the Heat’s loss to Milwaukee last week, and the injury required 10 stitches.
The location of the cut — between his middle and ring fingers — has made it extremely painful to catch a pass.
Trainers fitted Whiteside with an elaborate wrap around his hand during practice Monday, and he will try and play against the Spurs. Meanwhile, Andersen has been slow to return from a bruised calf.
In all, the Heat’s current injury report is eight players deep. Considering the shape of the team, wins against the Boston Celtics last Wednesday and the Pistons on Sunday felt like monumental victories. Haslem was a major part of both games. He had 12 points and 12 rebounds against the Celtics.
“Every team needs a Udonis Haslem, someone who is about the team — I mean we’re all about self at some point, but someone who doesn’t walk around and talk about self and will do anything for anyone, especially in this locker room,” said Dwyane Wade, who had 40 points against the Pistons after having his knee drained of fluid. “He should get a lot of credit for the sacrifices he has made throughout this organization. Early in the season, he wasn’t even playing or in the rotation, and now we count on him every night.”
For the Heat, the team’s toughest and — let’s be real here — most intimidating player also is the embodiment of team basketball. That’s a rare combination, and for those characteristics — not to mention his three championships and franchise rebounding records as an undrafted player — Haslem carries hard-earned respect into every game.
During the good times over the past five years, Haslem’s importance to the Heat was overshadowed by LeBron James’ dunks and a squadron of three-point shooters.
Now, with the team fighting for a spot in the playoffs and injuries mounting up once again, Haslem’s steadying influence, along with Wade’s late-season surge, might have saved the season.
“Dwyane and U.D. now are playing their best basketball this time of year and that instills confidence in the rest of the group, and especially when you get into the fourth quarter,” Spoelstra said. “U.D. makes big, game-winning-type plays on either side of the court, and Wade gives you the option to throw the ball to him and he’ll create some offense for you in the toughest moments.”