Few were taken seriously for underestimating the Miami Heat as they entered Wednesday night's Game 2 against the Chicago Bulls. Though Chicago won handily in Game 1, Miami had been playing some of the league's best basketball since the postseason started, and it hung tough in three regular-season losses to Chicago. All the Heat needed were a few breaks to go their way, and possibly a hidden element to help turn the tide. In taking Game 2 by an 85-75 score, Miami got both.
Chicago missed 10 free throws, and 17-of-20 3-pointers; but the real story of the game was the unexpected return of long-time Heat power forward Udonis Haslem. Following 5 1/2 months on the Miami bench following a foot fracture sustained on Nov. 20, Haslem had played just 3 1/2 minutes of the ugliest basketball you've ever seen in short stints against Boston last week and Chicago on Sunday night. He erupted for 13 points, five rebounds and two assists on Wednesday in a reserve turn in this win that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called "inspirational."
Afterward, Spoelstra was fawning in his praise of the veteran big man.
(And for those of you who didn't pay much attention to the Miami Heat before this season, trust me, this is how Spoelstra always talks about Haslem.)
Channeling Charlie Sheen, Spoelstra called Haslem "an absolute championship warrior." Due to Joel Anthony's early foul trouble and Juwan Howard's ineffectiveness (and the fact that, for the second straight game, Spoelstra had left Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, and their 73 combined starts, on the inactive list), Spoelstra needed to test the waters with Haslem, and he responded with a solid second-quarter turn.
It was Haslem's work in the third quarter, as the first Heat big man off the bench, that turned the tide for Miami. He didn't miss a shot in four attempts, and he seemed to have an answer for every Chicago make.
Two ferocious fast-break dunks for the Florida product, as well as a couple of jumpers and his typically brilliant help defense and screening helped the Heat build a double-digit lead that they hung on to despite a furious Chicago comeback in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls rallied behind the bench play of big men Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, but Asik was forced to leave the game with a bloody cut he sustained with the score knotted at 73-73, and the Heat took over following that. LeBron James loomed large, as you'll read everywhere else, and Dwyane Wade was constantly on point both offensively and defensively throughout, but Haslem was the difference in a ferocious physical battle. "When the ball was up on the board," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game, "they were in a fight."
Though Haslem's play forced the Heat coach into regretting not bringing Haslem off the Heat bench sooner ("he's only been at it for about a month, so it was hard to gauge"), Spoelstra did see something in his long-time forward, literally, that allowed him to think that Wednesday night was the night.
"There was a look in his eye," Spoelstra didn't mind going on record and saying, "and I knew it was time. I've been through a lot of battles with this warrior before."
So, yes, Spoelstra was fond of Haslem's play on Wednesday. He wasn't alone. Thibodeau pointed out postgame that "Haslem is a terrific player. He's one of those guys that you can't measure statistically."
Sometimes you can, and the measures often don't hold up to scrutiny. The Heat were minus-11 overall with Haslem on the court in this game, but that was mainly because the Chicago defense had improved to the point where his more famous teammates could not get a shot off. Chicago could get shots off -- 14 more than Miami as the Heat's turnovers and misses on the defensive glass piled up, but the Bulls just could not finish. In the first half, it was their fault, as they blew several good chances ("easy bunnies," Derrick Rose called them after the loss) along with those missed free throws.
In the second half? It was the Heat's defense. And usually with Haslem out there, working in ways that, well, "can't be measured statistically."
It can be measured with gifts, though. LeBron James pointed out that Haslem "definitely got the game ball tonight." Dwyane Wade called him "the player of the game." Haslem just knew that he couldn't afford to play like a contributor uneasily coming back from injury:
"The last thing I wanted to do was hesitate, and start thinking. My teammates had confidence in me and kept getting me the ball in the right position, and I just shot with confidence."
He also moved with confidence, which wasn't the case in hesitant spurts against Boston on May 9, and Chicago on the 15th. Haslem has long been thought of as perhaps the best big man in the NBA at moving his feet, and that wasn't apparent in his two previous stints. After the game, though, Haslem credited his coach for the way he "got my feet wet" with the truncated appearances, "and you saw the results tonight."
We did, and as another result Miami has taken the home-court advantage in an Eastern Conference final that seemed to be running with all the momentum on Chicago's side heading into Wednesday night. And they have Haslem, their longest-tenured player along with Wade, to thank.