Haslem starring as Miami’s ‘glue’ guy in finals

For all the glitzy personnel moves the Miami Heat made last

summer to largely reshape the NBA’s balance of power, there was one

deal the Dallas Mavericks desperately wish never happened.

And we’re not talking about the ones LeBron James, Dwyane Wade

and Chris Bosh signed.

Nope, the Mavs were hoping to land Udonis Haslem a year ago when

he hit the open market. Given what he did against them in the 2006

NBA finals – and what he’s doing so far in the 2011 series rematch,

which resumes Tuesday night with Game 4 in Dallas – it’s easy to

see why Haslem was in such high demand.

He’s averaging a less-than-whopping 5 points and 4.3 rebounds in

the first three games, but with Haslem, the stat line never tells

anything remotely close to the entire story. He is Miami’s

grittiest player, and the way he forced Mavs’ star Dirk Nowitzki

into a missed jumper on the final possession of Game 3 ensured that

the Heat would not only win that night but reclaim the home-court

advantage in these finals.

”We would have loved to have him,” Nowitzki said.

”Unfortunately, obviously, he stayed there. I guess a good move on

his part.”

Maybe a real good move.

Haslem gave the Heat one heck of a hometown discount last

summer, when the Miami native agreed to a deal worth $20 million

for five seasons, over 40 percent less than what he likely

potentially could have collected from Dallas, Denver or other

suitors. That’s what being around family means to Haslem, and when

he says that, he’s not speaking of his relatives. The Heat are as

dear to him as anything, especially after they took a chance on him

eight years ago.

”It wasn’t a hard decision,” Haslem said. ”This is where I

wanted to be and I couldn’t see myself leaving.”

Haslem averaged 6.2 points and 6 rebounds in Miami’s six-game

win over Dallas in the 2006 finals, yet it was what he did in the

title-clinching game that made a giant impact on the series.

Playing with an injured shoulder, Haslem – who turns 31 on

Thursday, when Miami and Dallas will play Game 5 – scored 17 points

and grabbed 10 rebounds, and nagged Nowitzki on defense for much of

that game as well. He earned a reputation as a bit of a

Dirk-stopper in that series, and with control of the 2011 finals in

the balance on Sunday, Haslem took a turn guarding Nowitzki

again.

Nowitzki caught an inbounds pass at the top of the key with 4.4

seconds remaining and Dallas down by two, then tried to drive right

before spinning back toward the foul line. Haslem stayed draped on

him the whole way, kept his arms high as Nowitzki tried to shoot,

then left them up until the ball bounced harmlessly off the rim.

Only then did he punch the air in celebration, knowing the Heat had

just gotten their biggest win of the season.

In Game 2, Nowitzki made a game-winner at the end, that time

with Bosh guarding him. Haslem demanded the job in Game 3.

”I was very confident in UD, understanding he wanted that

challenge the last game, and he wasn’t able to be put in that

position,” Wade said. ”Put him back in that position this time. I

knew he was going to at least make it tough. If Dirk makes the

shot, at least do his job and make sure he takes a fadeaway at the

end.”

Haslem took the longest of all possible routes to his hometown

team. He played college ball at Florida with now-Heat-teammate Mike

Miller, ballooned to the neighborhood of 300 pounds, then started

his pro career in France and shed the weight – noting many times

since that French food is not the easiest thing to surround

yourself with and still slim down so dramatically. Now a lean 230,

Haslem has been part of Miami’s rotation since his arrival in

2003.

His toughness is the stuff of legend in the Heat locker room,

which is why three events from the past year stand out: How he wept

when the realization hit that the Heat may not have the money to

keep him last summer; how emotional he got when talking about his

recently deceased mother before the season and how she wanted to

see her boy win another NBA title; and how he insisted that what

some thought was a season-ending injury on Nov. 20 would not hold

him back for long.

Haslem ruptured a ligament in his left foot and needed surgery.

His comeback was months ahead of what some estimates said would be

the schedule. His first post-injury impact came during Game 2 of

the Eastern Conference finals against Chicago, when he willed the

Heat to a series-changing win.

There’s no holding him back now, and even though there’s still

some soreness and fatigue in the foot, the lure of a title keeps

him going.b

”I didn’t know what I would be able to give, be able to

contribute,” Haslem said. ”I figured I would be able to come back

maybe five, 10 minutes a game, some leadership, some toughness.

Myself being in that position, it’s been a blessing. My teammates

have stayed behind me. Coaching staff is encouraging me. It’s been

a work in progress.”

It’s also earned him the respect of the Mavericks, Nowitzki in

particular.

Haslem might not be thought of as an All-Star, but around the

league, his value to Miami is perfectly clear.

”He’s one of the best defenders we have at the power forward

spot,” Nowitzki said. ”He’s active. To me, it really hurt them

him being out for so long. He’s back in time. He’s kind of a glue

guy. He does all the little things. He sets screens, he does all

the dirty work. He’s a good rebounder. He’s great in

pick-and-rolls, showing. He does all the little things. They got

him right back in time.”

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