Udonis Haslem relishes role as Heat’s throwback player

MIAMI — When Udonis Haslem was in high school, his team had a take-charge drill in which one player would barrel into another at full speed.
For some, it was grueling. For Haslem, it was entertainment.
“You would just stand there in the lane and let a guy run you over,’’ the Miami Heat forward remembers about those days at Miami High School. “It was crazy. You just got to take it in the chest and a guy just knocks you down and runs you over …. It was fun. It was nothing personal, but it was real competitive …. I was about 260 (pounds), and guys bounced off me.’’

Haslem wouldn’t mind if today’s NBA game offered more similarities to those drills. If basketball were like bumper cars, that would be just fine with him.

Haslem is the Heat henchman. With his physical play, he considers himself a throwback to some two decades ago when the “Bad Boys’’ ruled Detroit and when Pat Riley assembled a rugged gang in New York.

“That’s what I grew up watching,’’ Haslem said of that era. “I grew up admiring those lunch-pail guys, how hard they played and being able to dish it out. Back in those days, those guys could dish out hard fouls, but they could take hard fouls too. It’s not the same any more.’’

Haslem sure found that out in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal against Indiana. Shortly after Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough had a flagrant foul 1 against Heat guard Dwyane Wade, Haslem plowed into Hansbrough.

Haslem was assessed a flagrant foul 1. He later was suspended for Game 6, which the Heat were able to win to close out the series 4-2.

“It probably would have been just a regular foul,’’ Haslem said about how his hit on Hansbrough might have been handled during the NBA’s rough-and-tumble era. “I’ve seen a lot worse …. It was just a hard play on the basketball. I still stand by the fact that I didn’t feel like I should have been suspended, and I didn’t feel like I had tried to hurt anybody. It was a hard foul.’’

Haslem will run into the Pacers again in the East finals, which start Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. There has been plenty of talk about how this will be a physical series, much like the one last year.

Then again, every series is like that as far as Haslem is concerned.

“That’s the way I play the game,’’ said Haslem, 32, a former University of Florida star. “I compete. I get hit and I take hits. So to me, it’s just another series.’’

But if anybody thinks Haslem’s only role in this series will be to serve as an enforcer, they would be mistaken. As Miami’s starting power forward, Haslem is providing some unexpected offense this postseason.

Haslem is averaging 6.2 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 63.4 percent. While that might not seem like oodles of points, Haslem is averaging just 17.7 minutes per game. And he averaged just 3.9 points in 18.9 minutes during the regular season.

The 10-year veteran has reached double figures in scoring in three of nine playoff games. He also got there in two of his final three regular-season outings after going 52 straight games without reaching double figures.

Prorated over 36 minutes, Haslem’s playoff scoring average is 12.7. That’s higher than he’s ever had in the playoffs and equal to his best effort over a regular season.

“It took me 2 ½ years to figure out my place and my role and where to be aggressive and where I’m going to get my shots from,’’ Haslem said about adjusting to playing alongside the Big Three of LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh, who joined forces in the summer of 2010. “It was a work in progress. It wasn’t easy, getting comfortable, getting in a rhythm and also be aggressive and staying out of those guys’ way.’’

Haslem said he had trouble adjusting after missing most of the 2010-11 season due to a foot injury. He said he’s now the most comfortable he’s ever been on this star-studded Miami team.

Haslem shot 5 of 6 for 10 points in last Wednesday’s 94-91 win over Chicago in Game 5 of an East semifinal. He scored eight of Miami’s first 12 points, making a jumper, a dunk and a pair of layups.

Meanwhile, Haslem also provided his usual amount of grit as the Heat closed out a physical series. His plus-10 rating that night was the highest of any Miami player.

“He’s proven himself as a tough warrior,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’ll make every single tough play you need to make in a physical manner without losing his mind. He’s not out there to fight. He’s not out there to go over the top. He’s out there to provide a physical presence and he has great focus and discipline of the mind. He doesn’t lose his cool but he can straddle that fine line of fierce competitor and disciplined toughness.’’

Haslem admits he sometimes lost his cool when he was a young player. So what changed?

“All the fines that I had in the league and I got a couple of ejections,’ Haslem said. “I started looking at my check. I got older and wiser. When I was younger, being a hot head and a real competitor, I did a lot of silly things.’’

Haslem’s hit on Hansbrough last spring cost him about $34,000 in lost salary. But nobody on the Heat believed it was silly.

In a series that already had been contentious, Hansbrough clocked Wade on a second-quarter drive to the basket. Less than a minute later, Haslem walloped Hansbrough when he went up for a shot.

“Obviously, he thought I took a shot that was uncalled for and he got his opportunity to get one back,’’ said Wade, who broke into the NBA along with Haslem on the Heat in 2003-04 and has had him as a bodyguard ever since. “It’s unfortunate that he had to miss (one) game. But (Haslem’s) done it our whole career. We don’t want him to miss a game, but he stands up for his teammates, he believes in team and he shows it all the time.

“He’s a real-life tough guy. He’s not an in-between-the-lines tough guy.’’

Haslem is a throwback. He said NBA enforcers he admired when he was young included Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Horace Grant, Grant Long and Brian Grant.

Haslem sought to emulate those guys on the court while growing up in Miami. He said pickup games at the park often got so rough that players waiting for the next game were called in to serve as referees.

“He understands toughness on the court and so he’s got a great style,’’ Heat forward Shane Battier said of Haslem. “He’s got an old soul for a basketball player.’’

Haslem wouldn’t mind turning the clock back to a more rugged time in the NBA or to his days at Miami High School. If any Indiana players want to engage in a take-charge drill with Haslem, he sounds quite ready.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com

or on Twitter @christomasson.