MIAMI — Udonis Haslem arrived at AmericanAirines Arena on Friday extremely eager to face the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat forward had missed the previous two games — losses to Brooklyn and at Memphis — due to a stomach virus that forced him to watch on television.
"It sucked, obviously, just wishing I could be out there battling with my guys, helping my guys out there," Haslem said. "Especially when we play against physical teams like Brooklyn and Memphis."
Haslem returned Friday night and helped to limit Pacers center and Heat killer Roy Hibbert to five points and one rebound in Miami’s 98-86 victory.
In the 10 previous meetings dating back to last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Hibbert had averaged 20.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. That was one reason the Heat signed 7-foot Greg Oden, whose physical presence figured to test Indiana’s big man.
But in the Pacers’ March 26 win at Indiana, Oden did not play after the game’s first six minutes in which Hibbert exploited the former No. 1 overall draft pick.
Enter Haslem, who started the second half of that game and Friday night’s affair.
Despite giving Hibbert a six-inch height edge and 55-pound weight advantage, Haslem worked hard to frustrate the Pacers center.
"He takes it personally when guys are effective in the paint," Miami’s James Jones said. "He brings it. And when he’s playing the way he’s playing, at a high level with confidence, he’s a beast."
For a while this season, Haslem didn’t play much at all.
He did not see a minute in February, then played single-digits well into March. He then rejoined the rotation, starting eight of 10 games through last Sunday’s win against New York.
"Udonis is the heart and soul of this team with the things that he does and the hard work he puts in," center Chris Bosh said. "He does all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet."
Haslem finished with 11 points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes, 16 seconds. He also became Miami’s all-time leading offensive rebounder, surpassing new Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, when he grabbed a board at 5:52 of the second quarter.
"He’s an old warrior," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He’s had to defend everybody in this league for over a decade. He was probably our original 3-5 (small forward, power forward, center) and he’s been defending the front, the best players since he has been in a uniform. So he had an incredible technique.
"It starts with technique, awareness, anticipation, and then what’s going on in here (tapping his heart), which you can’t teach. You can’t find that."
A big heart cannot ward off illness, however.
"It kind of hit me, and hit me hard," Haslem said of his sickness earlier in the week. "I was down and I wasn’t able to eat. Living in the bathroom."
Fortunately for Haslem and the Heat, the veteran had a 48-hour virus and not one that would force him to miss five games, as Ray Allen experienced recently.
"It’s down toward the end of the season, I can’t afford to be out a week and a half," Haslem said. "Not at this point."
The win gave Miami (54-25) a half-game lead over Indiana (54-26) in the Eastern Conference race. The Heat have three games remaining (at Atlanta, at Washington, vs. Philadelphia). The Pacers have two games left (vs. Oklahoma City, at Orlando).
The teams split their four regular-season games, so a tie will give the top seed to the team with the better conference record. Indiana fell to 37-14 in the East; Miami improved to 34-15.
"We understand what we have to do to be successful," Haslem said. "We understand how hard we have to compete and how we have to move the ball offensively and what our keys to success are."