For weeks in February, practically the only time Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis worked up a sweat on game nights was during the spirited pre-game 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 battles among Heat reserves.
Haslem didn’t play a minute that entire month. Lewis logged just 17 minutes over two games.
That seems like ages ago now.
When the Heat opens the playoffs Sunday against Charlotte, Haslem will be back in a familiar spot – as an expected starter. And Lewis also appears likely to receive playing time, unless Erik Spoelstra changes course from recent weeks.
“I’ve been to the bottom, not playing,” Haslem said during a reflective moment last week. “Playing takes the pressure off, because it can’t be any worse than not playing. It was humbling not playing. I’m not going to sit here and say it was easy. I’m glad to be contributing again.”
Haslem’s post defense, which has been excellent in two recent games against Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, will be needed against Charlotte’s Al Jefferson, who averaged 25.3 points and 15.3 rebounds in four games against the Heat – better than his outstanding overall averages this season of 21.8 and 10.8.
Jefferson, at 6-10, will have a two-inch height advantage over Haslem, whereas Hibbert had a six-inch cushion.
“Al Jefferson, since January, since the All-Star break, has been one of the top players in this league,” Spoelstra said.
Haslem was a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) for 31 games this season and played sparingly in several others before Spoelstra summoned him for key late-game moments of a March 18 game in Cleveland.
Haslem delivered six rebounds in eight minutes that night, was immediately re-inserted into the rotation and eventually moved back into the starting lineup March 28, when Greg Oden was sidelined by a back injury.
In 12 games as a starter over the past month, Haslem averaged 7.7 points and 6.8 rebounds and shot 64 percent from the field.
“Udonis is the heart and soul of this team,” Chris Bosh said. “I’ve always loved playing side-by-side with him. He makes my job a little easier.”
During the darkest days, when Haslem was near the end of the bench, he drew solace from simple eye contact with Heat president Pat Riley.
“Pat understands my passion,” he said. “He understands I want to be out there. He probably understands me better than anybody. After the games, he looked at me, I looked at him and he gave me that look that told me to stay encouraged.”
Haslem said his children also “kept me uplifted” when he wasn’t playing much, because to them “it doesn’t matter if I play or don’t play.”
Before the February trade deadline, when Haslem was out of the rotation, the Heat declined overtures to trade him to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, who was dealt instead to Indiana. But in an unexpected twist, Haslem contributed more to his team than Turner in recent weeks.
“It feels good being back out on the floor,” said Haslem, who very likely will exercise his $4.6 million player option for next season. “I’m helping us win. I’m contributing and I’m healthy. It was frustrating not playing, but you don’t point the finger at anybody. I wanted to stick through it and was confident my time would come.”
Lewis, whose contract expires after the season, said if he logs meaningful minutes this postseason, it will be easier because he has played regular minutes the past few weeks. He was on the court for just 47 minutes during the playoffs last year.
“I most definitely appreciate it,” he said of the increased role.
“I knew my role would lessen when I signed here [in the summer of 2012]. I knew maybe I’d play, maybe not play. I’m very happy I made that decision, because if I didn’t, I wouldn't have a championship ring. I had other offers; I actually had an offer from a team that told me they would start me.”
Since re-joining the rotation, Lewis has averaged 6.6 points and shot 41 percent from the field, while often playing ahead of Shane Battier.
“I feel very secure with Rashard in the lineup because we can play our game,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a pro. He keeps himself ready. He does the things that we need on both ends. He’s a heady defensive player, gets in the right spots, and offensively, he’s very smart. There’s a flow to our game when he’s in there.”
Lewis said he, Haslem and James Jones (who remains out of the rotation) “supported each other” during the weeks that they were all out of the rotation.
“I think coaches know, after watching us last year prepare ourselves, that we do a good job of keep ourselves mentally and physically ready,” Lewis said.