Udonis Haslem Still Major Key to Miami Heat’s Title Hopes

Udonis Haslem was once again an understated, yet crucial key to the Miami Heat's 96-85 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 3 of the 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, as he complimented Chris Bosh's incredible 34-point performance with eight points on 4-of-7 from the field to go along with four rebounds, an assist and a steal in 24 minutes on the court. However, it wasn't his offense that was most important, but his defense, as he helped the Heat hold the Bulls to just 41 percent shooting overall.

To many outside Florida, the trademark cornrows he wears, the tattoos that cover his arms and body, and the "scowl" that seems perpetually plastered on his face during games probably instill in their minds the word "thug" when they think of the Miami Heat's longtime captain and reserve power forward. To his teammates, though, the only word that fully describes what he means to them, as the Miami Herald's Greg Cote so eloquently illuminates in his latest article , is "inspirational."

When Pat Riley was working his magic over the past offseason, doing his best to convince Dwyane Wade to stay, and pulling out all the stops to persuade LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join their good friend in South Beach, he knew in the back of his mind his work would never really be complete unless he was also able to find a way to retain the services of the 6-8, 235 lbs. forward out of the University of Florida he'd given a chance to in 2003 when not many would.

Haslem had helped the Florida Gators advance to the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship as a sophomore, and was a star in college, but went unselected in the 2002 NBA Draft. After attending camp with the Atlanta Hawks, he'd been cut when his weight skyrocketed to over 300 lbs, and subsequently signed a contract overseas with a pro team, Chalon-Sur-Sa´ne, in France.

However, he still had dreams of playing in the NBA, and embarked on a dieting regimen that saw him lose over 70 pounds during that season overseas; which gave him a shot in the NBA summer leagues the following year. A native of Miami , Haslem knew where he wanted to play, and who he wanted to play for—the Heat.

In stepped Riley with his championship pedigree—offering the young forward his lifetime dreams' fulfillment—giving him a two-year contract to backup then starting power forward Brian Grant. At that time, Haslem was more than happy to be in that role, and took to it like a fish to water, hustling and grinding as well as any journeyman who's ever come off the bench of any team in the NBA.

That hustle and determination garnered him a place on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team, as he averaged 7.3 points and 6.3 rebounds for Miami , and was key in him being named the Heat's starting power forward for the 2004-05 season when Riley traded Lamar Odom, along with Brian Grant and Caron Butler to the Los Angeles Lakers for Shaquille O'Neal.

His tough style of play was a perfect compliment to the Heat's newly-acquired big man, and his ability to rebound, take a charge, and hit the open jumper from 15-18 feet from the basket, along with the slashing ability of Wade that drew defenders to him like moths to a flame as well as O'Neal's unparalleled passing prowess for a center, gave Miami a core that propelled them to the Eastern Conference Finals that season to face the Detroit Pistons.

Because of an injury to Wade late in that series, the Heat wouldn't prevail against the boys from Motor City that year. However, with Haslem's help after he signed a new two-year contract, Miami would return the following season to win their first championship; coming back to beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the NBA Finals.

In fact, while Wade and O'Neal got most of the press concerning that title run, and Wade got all the accolades for his performance against Dallas in the Finals, Haslem was one of the biggest reasons they even got there.

The Heat had been struggling early in the season, which led to Head Coach Stan Van Gundy resigning and Pat Riley taking over the reins. After an embarrassing loss on national television to the Mavericks on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006 , it was Haslem who stood up in a players-only meeting called immediately following the game and gave an emotional speech that galvanized the team for the rest of the season, culminating in their hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Injuries to O'Neal and Wade (Dwyane's dislocated shoulder injury keeping him out most of the year) would eventually doom Miami 's hopes of defending their title, and although they were able to make the playoffs after the 2006-07 NBA season, the Heat were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first-round.

The following year would see more injuries, and O'Neal being traded to the Phoenix Suns for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks after Miami got off to a 9-37 start en route to their NBA-worst 15-67 finish that 2007-08 season. Throughout the Heat's struggles, though, Haslem was a bedrock-strong presence in both the locker room and on the court.

When the Heat drafted Michael Beasley with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft, many thought Haslem's days in Miami were numbered. Udonis pushed through all that talk, though, and was more than willing to be the elder tutor to the young phenom; who would go on that year to become the Heat's second-leading scorer behind Wade, averaging 13.9 points per game.

Haslem even had no problem the following year when he was replaced in the starting lineup by Beasley, and was forced once again into the role of a backup by new head coach Erik Spoelstra, who called the decision "difficult and uncomfortable."

"I understand where he's coming from," Haslem stated about his coach's decision. "I've been behind him and this organization 100 percent since I've been here, and this is another situation where I'm behind him again. My role is going to be different, but pretty much still the same." (Associated Press)

That kind of selfless, team-first attitude was precisely what allowed Haslem to forego millions of dollars this past summer as a free agent and re-sign with the Heat and the "Three Kings" to help them possibly bring another title to South Beach.

He could have signed with the Dallas Mavericks or Denver Nuggets for $10 million more than he eventually opted to re-sign with Miami for, but South Beach is his home, and to "UD" as he's called by Heat fans, home is very, very important.

Haslem would go down with a ruptured ligament in his left foot in November of 2010, and missed the rest of the regular-season, and there was lingering doubt he would even return this year. However, his comeback in Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls was crucial to the Heat being able to win that game 85-75 and even the best-of-seven series with Chicago .

As LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and the rest of the Heat players said after the game, it was Haslem who deserved the game-ball.

Miami will only go as far as the "Three Kings" take them, but as I pointed out in my article you can read here , as well as my reiteration of that point in a piece I wrote here , Haslem is still a lynchpin to the Heat's success this year.

That's because he brings intensity to the game as great as or greater than anyone else on Miami , and is the heart and soul of the Heat. That intensity, which is why he wears that "scowl" so much, along with his cornrows and tattoos, may make fans of other teams throughout the NBA believe he's a thug, but the truth is he's the farthest thing from one.

Haslem is a warrior—or as Spoelstra said after the win against Chicago, "an absolute championship warrior."—and is still a major key to the Heat winning a title.

Game On!

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All stats and information taken from personal notes and verified at Basketball-Reference.com and Yahoo! Sports.

Read more by Daniel Barber aka Hotnuke at TFS Sports

*Daniel Barber has been a fan of all Miami teams since he was a child or since their inception having been born right above Miami.

Sources:

Basketball-Reference.com

Unknown. (2009). Heat Give Haslem Backup Role. ESPN.

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Updated Monday, May 23, 2011