It wasn't long ago that forward Udonis Haslem looked finished. The 33-year-old Miami Heat legend began the season playing the worst basketball of his career and the rotation spot he had long occupied was taken away from him in November.
Haslem would still find his way into games here and there at the end of 2013, but his on-court time continued to significantly diminish as the season progressed. Haslem made just seven appearances in January and February combined and played just two minutes total from Jan. 21 to Feb. 27.
And Haslem wasn't giving coach Erik Spoelstra a lot of reasons to want to reinstate him in the rotation. In his limited action throughout the season's first couple of months, Haslem looked slow defensively, seemed afraid to shoot his mid-range jumper and even struggled rebounding the ball (2.1 RPG with 11.0 MPG in December), once his greatest strength.
So Haslem waited on the bench for a time when the Heat needed him, a time where he could again try and redeem himself.
He told B/R's Ethan Skolnick in February, "I know there's gonna come a point where they're gonna need me, because there always is."
Haslem was right. That time came on March 26 when the Indiana Pacers hosted the Heat in a crucial Eastern Conference battle. After Roy Hibbert dominated Greg Oden and Chris Bosh for much of the first half (17 points), Coach Spoelstra called upon Haslem to take a shot at guarding Hibbert.
Haslem more than held his own. Hibbert finished the game with 21 points, converting no field goals in the second half (B/R's Wes Goldberg did a nice breakdown of Haslem's matchup with Hibbert).
Haslem has played at least 15 minutes in every Heat game since then and at least 25 minutes in the last three games. But that doesn't stem solely from his returning defensive prowess.
It appears the old, trustworthy Udonis Haslem is back in full, and that's fantastic news for Miami as it heads into the postseason.
U.D. has done a terrific job on the boards. In his seven games since returning to the rotation, Haslem has snagged 9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. For comparison, Chris "Birdman" Andersen is Miami's best rebounder this season, posting 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes.
After having months like December in which he averaged 2.6 points on 26.1 percent shooting from the floor, Haslem is again an offensive contributor like he's been the past few seasons. Not only has he been willing to take his mid-range jumper, he's knocking it down now, too. He's shooting 11-20 on jumpers from 10 feet or more over these past seven games.
As Skolnick recently pointed out, the statistical turnaround for Haslem has been remarkable. His net rating in the first half of the season was a putrid minus-13.2. Since the All-Star break, his net rating is plus-15.3.
Haslem couldn't be picking his play up at a better time and will almost assuredly start for Miami in the playoffs.
Greg Oden has not been able to make the defensive impact the Heat likely planned for him to make when they signed him, and his chances at postseason minutes are looking slim.
As Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel points out, Spoelstra isn't going to want to start Andersen, as Miami prefers his energy off the bench. And 35-year-old Shane Battier, who looks worn down and isn't playing particularly well, isn't a great option to start, either.
Miami needs Haslem to continue to perform at a high level because, remarkably enough, Miami doesn't have a whole lot of fallback options who can be as successful as he can at this point. He's capable of strong defense, fantastic rebounding, hitting jumpers on offense and providing toughness and leadership.
His importance will be especially magnified if the Heat happen to meet up with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even with all of the Pacers' struggles, they can still give Miami trouble if Hibbert is able to bully the back-to-back champs like he has done in the past. And right now, Haslem looks like the only player on the Heat capable of preventing Hibbert from possibly repeating his stellar performance in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals (22.1 PPG and 10.4 RPG).
Yes, Udonis Haslem, the forgotten man in Miami, is now a starter and one of the keys for the Heat to reach another NBA Finals and possibly three-peat.
Just as we all predicted.
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