MIAMI – Udonis Haslem(notes) looked exhausted as he sat in the Miami Heat’s locker room late Tuesday. After bending over to take off his shoes, he exhaled a long sigh of relief. The thought of practicing on Wednesday? Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. All Haslem wanted was to soak in an ice bath in hopes the deep cold would rid him of his pain.
That’s what guarding Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki(notes) will do to you, especially when you’re trying to play on a sore left foot. And yet for nearly 30 minutes of the Heat’s 92-84 victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Haslem looked as sturdy as ever. Nowitzki scored 27 points, but Haslem helped make him earn them: Nowitzki missed 11 of his 18 shots.
The majority of attention on the Heat during these Finals will understandably be focused on their three superstars: LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes). But Haslem’s defense on Nowitzki – just like it was five years ago – will go a long way in determining whether Miami wins its second championship.
“It ain’t easy,” Haslem said. “After the game you can feel it. There’s not too many [power forwards] running off [screens]. Usually a four-man gets a cross screen to the post or something like that. They run him off singles …”
Haslem didn’t finish the sentence, exhaling one more time instead.
“It’s difficult,” he said.
Haslem took a keen interest in watching Nowitzki on TV during the first three rounds of the playoffs. The 7-foot Nowitzki’s ability to shoot 3-pointers after coming off screens typically reserved for guards, the one-legged fallback jumpers, the pretty baseline spin – Haslem loved it all. But with each passing playoff game the Heat and Mavericks won, Haslem went from watching Nowitzki for fun to watching him as preparation.
“I was doing my homework from the beginning of the playoffs,” Haslem said. “I didn’t know if we were going to play them. But when I saw him playing the way he’s playing throughout the playoffs, I’m a basketball head so I love watching games. I’ve been a fan of his all the way up until this point. I kind of started my work earlier without really working – just watching him play.”
The fact that Haslem is even guarding Nowitzki is impressive in itself.
Haslem was expected to be a key role player for Miami, but missed the majority of the season after tearing ligaments in his foot on Nov. 20. He didn’t return until Game 4 of the Heat’s second-round series against the Boston Celtics – and he played less than three minutes that night, picking up two fouls in the process. After he played just four minutes in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, it seemed unlikely that Haslem would be able to contribute much for the remainder of these playoffs.
“It’s hard to explain U.D. and what’s inside of him – the championship heart,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “None of us really anticipated he would be available to this extent.”
The Heat had hope in Haslem after he had a solid defensive performance against Nowitzki in the 2006 Finals. Nowitzki averaged 26.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field during that regular season, but those numbers dropped to 22.8 points on 39 percent shooting in the Finals. Miami won the series in six games.
But even Haslem concedes Nowitzki is a different player now.
“His post game is a lot better,” Haslem said. “He’s putting it on the floor through contact, playing through the physical play. Obviously, you don’t want to put him on the line. You’re better off giving him a dunk.”
Nowitzki had 17 points, six on free throws, through the first three quarters. And with the Heat up 65-61 entering the fourth quarter, it was no secret that Dallas would lean on Nowitzki to turn the game around.
Haslem did his best to deny Nowitzki the ball, pushing him toward the baseline where help was often waiting from Bosh. Nowitzki scored 10 points, but made just two shots and looked uncomfortable. Nowitzki’s last field goal of the game came with 2:48 remaining. It was just his third game in this postseason in which he shot under 40 percent.
“We all know Haslem is a good defender at the four position,” said Nowitzki, who also suffered a torn tendon in the middle finger of his hand. “Probably one of the best in the league. I still got my opportunities when I put the ball on the floor. I got to finish.”
It’s just one game, and who knows how long these Finals last. Haslem knows his assignment will likely bring more pain. He seems ready.
“I’m a competitor,” Haslem said. “I look forward to the challenge. I’m sure he is as well.”