Thursday May 19th, 2011

CHICAGO -- They were headed down the same wastrel path to a fifth straight overall loss to the Bulls and a 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals. The ball would come off Chicago's rim and the Heat would not, could not, control the defensive rebound. Within six minutes the Bulls already held a 7-0 advantage in offensive boards and a 9-3 rebounding lead overall.

"My initial thought was, 'Here we go again,' " Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We have to make a change. Otherwise the result won't change."

That change came in the eighth minute, and it arrived with soothing familiarity. Udonis Haslem replaced Jamaal Magloire, who himself had replaced starting center Joel Anthony.

"Guys got in foul trouble early," Haslem said. "I went in earlier than expected. I was ready."

Was he? No one could be sure. Not until he began to change the game, shouldering it and levering it and bodying up against the season-long trends that the Bulls had created and finally compelling them to swing the other way. Miami's 85-75 Game 2 victory Wednesday was won on the boards, in the paint and in transition, which is where Haslem used to thrive, and where he thrived now again. And not a game too late for the Heat.

"My contributions mean nothing if we don't win this game tonight," he said after restoring his crucial role with 13 points (on 5-of-10 shooting), five rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block in 23 minutes. "I'm just happy I was able to contribute and we won."

There went Chicago's home-court advantage. The Bulls shot 34.1 percent and were outrebounded (45-41) for the first time in five meetings with the Heat this season, with the winner on the boards winning every game. One little success for Miami led to the next. The defense and rebounding created enough opportunities for LeBron James (29 points) and Dwyane Wade (24) together to outscore the Bulls 12-2 over the final seven minutes. James broke open a 73-73 tie by coming out of a timeout with 4:30 remaining and knocking down an enormous three-pointer, which he followed with a mid-range jumper after pump-faking the mismatched Derrick Rose (21 points on 7-of-23 from the field).

LeBron understood those shots might have held little meaning if not for Haslem.

"That's what we have missed all year," James said. "His energy, effort, scoring and toughness has been missing since November. He definitely got the game ball tonight."

Haslem played 13 games this season before undergoing surgery on his left foot to repair ligament damage. Ever since November he had been talking about returning earlier than expected, but no one ever knew what to expect. On May 9, he came back in the second quarter of Miami's Game 4 win against the Celtics, and was understandably awful. In a little less than three minutes he shot an air ball, committed two fouls and was assessed a technical on his way back to the bench. As tests go, this was a false positive. He had returned too soon.

"There was an incredible unknown," Spoelstra said. "We hadn't seen him in a game. Our practices at this point aren't quite as long as they were in midseason.

"He's been working as hard as anybody. He's only been at this about a month, and so it was very tough to gauge when he could possibly be ready. He's not a guy who needs touches, so it's a little bit different from a chemistry standpoint. But each day that he was able to work and grind and hit with [rookie center Dexter] Pitman and do conditioning and get his strength back, get his timing back. Every practice that we went at it seemed like a little bit more of the old Udonis was there. But three weeks ago, he wasn't where we remembered him."

Those memories were central to the formula Heat president Pat Riley pulled together last summer. The Heat had LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh, and they were going to surround them with shooters. But where was the spine? That was why they had made sure to bring back Haslem, to convince him of his importance as a free agent who might have made more money elsewhere. Now he was sitting on the bench Sunday in Game 1 of these conference finals watching Chicago murder his team with 19 offensive rebounds and 31 second-chance points.

"I was seeing guys running to the basket without bodies being put on them," Haslem said. "We have to hit guys when shots go up. When a shot went up, I was just trying to put a body on guys. If I couldn't get it, make sure those guys couldn't get it."

Before Monday's practice Haslem spoke with Spoelstra, who sensed he was ready. Or maybe it was simply that his coach needed him to be ready. He had played Haslem for four otherwise unimportant minutes at the end of Game 1, and now he was asking him to fix what had been ailing Miami all season against the East's No. 1 team.

The big man began by putting himself between Joakim Noah and the basket, and then between Carlos Boozer and the ball. He recovered an offensive rebound and fed James down the throat for a surprisingly unfettered dunk. He dived for a loose ball and relayed it to LeBron for a long three-pointer to beat the buzzer. The minutes went on and on and Haslem stayed on the floor as if he he'd never left the Heat this season. He was hitting mid-range jumpers to bail out possessions, he was dunking forcefully on a cut to the basket and again in transition, he was landing hard on his back and appearing to enjoy it.

Haslem's biggest impact could be seen when he returned to the bench, exhausted by his first extended play in six months. His teammates kept doing the same physical labor just as he had been showing them how to do it. James was attacking the backboard for a game-leading 10 rebounds, Wade for nine, Bosh for eight, Mike Miller for seven. Haslem wasn't out there, but he was with them all the same.

"It was certainly inspirational, the minutes he gave us," Spoelstra said. "That's who he has been his entire career. He has always led us in charges taken, hits, dives on the floor. We chart all those things. He's the all-time leader in all of our defensive categories."

Afterward the Heat talked about the differences Haslem made, and the Bulls talked about how the game had been made too easy for Miami. Which is to say that the Bulls were talking about Haslem, too.

"He came in huge for them," said Rose, frustrated by missing numerous layups that had everything to do with a defense that held his Bulls to 34.1 percent from the field. "It was too many hustle plays we didn't get, and led them to scoring the ball and getting easy baskets. We can't afford to let them do that, especially not with this team."

Spoelstra would talk about how Haslem is the embodiment of the franchise.

"We've always said that the image of a Miami Heat player, that's Udonis Haslem," he said.

But this is a rotation in its initial year together, and until now, Haslem hadn't been so much its embodiment as he'd represented its standard, its ideal. Now that he is back, could he become the last indispensable piece of a championship team?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.