When Josh Smith and Al Horford were clamoring for boards on both sides of the court and Chris Bosh (5 rebounds in 37 minutes) did little to add any source of resistance, coach Erik Spoelstra pulled off one of the boldest moves of the early season.
Rather than staying with Shane Battier at power forward, Spo decided to dust off Udonis Haslem. The former starter at the four has found his role dwindling over the past two seasons because of a lingering foot injury that has thrown off his usual lift and the consistent jumper that had been the staple of his career, which has resulted in the Heat choosing to go with the perimeter threat in Battier, who gave up a lot of height and weight to just about every assignment.
Before Friday’s win against Atlanta, Haslem hadn’t played in more than 20 minutes. This coming from a player that had averaged 30 minutes or more in five of their first six seasons. Haslem has seen his minutes diminish over the past three season and is currently averaging a career low 16.3 minutes per. His lowest point of this young season came when he played a mere five minutes in the Heat’s victory over Denver.
Normally a game against Denver would be the perfect setting for someone like Haslem. The Nuggets were loaded with gargantuan and scarily athletic players at the power forward and center positions, yet the Heat continued to go small. Even fellow forward Rashard Lewis, a 33-year-old who is coming off of two seasons with nagging knee injuries, received 15 minutes in the contest.
Haslem, like Joel Anthony, has seen his role decrease because of the team’s employment of playing at a faster pace with a smaller lineup. Perhaps if his jumper was falling as it was prior to his foot injury, Haslem would probably have a spot carved out for him in the rotation because it would space the floor. However, the fact that he is having significant trouble scoring has given way to Lewis, shooting surprisingly well early on, eating up his minutes.
Meanwhile, the Heat are continuing to start Battier at the power forward position where they are being met with mixed results. Battier certainly keeps the offense honest with his shooting ability, as well as his underrated capability of swinging the ball along the perimeter to the open man, but he’s also found his minutes take a hit as a result of being undersized. In fact, Battier has yet to play in a game for 30 minutes.
Against Atlanta, Battier played a season-low 20 minutes and 20 seconds. He managed only two points on four shots and missed both of three-point attempts in the time he received. Rather than sticking it out with Battier, Spo went with Haslem, who immediately delivered in a game that was just the type of contest you’d expect to see Udonis in. There would be no 120-point output from the Heat. It was a grind-out, gritty, physical game that featured both teams struggling to get over the 90-point threshold.
That’s Haslem’s cup of tea. He recorded only two points on three shots, but the ten rebounds he grabbed was huge for the Heat in a game that could have gone either way and wasn’t decided until the final seconds. The Heat were dominated on the boards in the first half, but recovered to finish with 36 rebounds, the same amount as the bigger Hawks. Miami also won the offensive rebounding battle 8-7.
Not bad for a team that currently ranks 29th in offensive rebounds and 27th in rebounds overall. The Heat knew that they would run into this problem of not having the size to stave off larger opponents, but were willing to use gang-rebounding and hope that their efficiency on the offensive end would negate the size of the opponent. Quietly, the Heat are regaining their bearings and showing signs that they are still true to their defensive culture.
Rebounding has always been a problem for this team without a true center, but it hasn’t nearly been as rough as it was the first five games of the season. LeBron James, averaging ten boards, and Chris Bosh, averaging a meager 6.8 boards, are the only players on this team averaging at least five boards per. Haslem recently boosted his numbers to 4.8 per and is averaging 10.7 boards per 36 minutes.
Rashard Lewis is garnering 2.8 rebounds per, while the team’s current starting power forward in Battier is averaging 2.2 rebounds per. It’s safe to say that Battier is probably the worst rebounder in the league at his position, but it’s tough to acquire rebounds when you’re playing out of position, giving up size to every single assignment, and 34-years-old. Rebounding is not meant to be in the repertoire of Battier, who is averaging 4.5 boards for his career.
That’s why Haslem is still on this team. Because as frustrated as his teammates and the coaching staff probably are when seeing Haslem miss a wide-open 15-foot jumper off of elite ball movement, he still serves a significant purpose as the blue-collar worker that leaves everything on the floor. You don’t get that from many players in today’s game. You don’t find players that are perfectly content with losing minutes and a starting job, yet still willing to take a paycut because they’re fiercely loyal.
Haslem is a special player in this sense. He’s in the NBA to do whatever he can to help his team win games, even if it means playing as low as five minutes. Because Haslem knows that there will be games like 95-89 win over Atlanta where his number will be called and his purpose will be served. Outside of Bosh and James, you’re not going to get ten rebounds against a team like Atlanta from anyone else on the roster.
You’re also not going to find someone who is going to stand over a 7-footer in Zaza Pachulia and then entice him into a technical foul.
Miami is facing a daunting road trip where they will take on teams such as Memphis, featuring Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights, and a Los Angeles Clippers team that features titans in Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf. The chances are likely that Haslem may be the player that sees just as much time off the bench as Ray Allen would, even if it goes against the Heat’s current ideology of pace-and-space.
And he will be ready.