Inside Udonis Haslem’s final game: ‘Couldn’t have envisioned it going any better’

Apr 9, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem (40) looks on after playing his last regular season career game at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem (40) looks on after playing his last regular season career game at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports /

MIAMI — Twenty years, 879 regular-season games, three championships. Immeasurable influence. This is the TLDR resumé of Udonis Haslem, who played his final regular season game Sunday for the Miami Heat. For someone who has poured everything into this organization, Haslem used this final game to unload whatever he had left.

He let it fly. Even after the wear and tear of two decades in the league, Haslem labored his 42-year-old body up and down the Kaseya Center court. His hands landed on his knees during every break. Sometimes he didn’t make it back on offense after working through defensive rotations but, when he did, he looked to score. He took 17 shots, including seven from 3-point range, for 24 points in 25 minutes. Uncharacteristic, for sure, but totally deserved for someone who accepted fewer minutes and fewer shots for more than half a decade.

The Heat beat the Magic, 123-110, not that anyone checked the scoreboard much. With Miami locked into the No. 7 seed and both teams resting several rotation regulars in a meaningless 1 p.m. tip, it was Haslem’s afternoon. Before the game, Bam Adebayo gifted Haslem with a rocking chair. Video montages of Haslem’s career and celebrity tributes filled every break. One featured Trick Daddy giving UD a shoutout. Shaquille O’Neal paid his respects. LeBron James said “I love you, brother. Salute.” Jimmy Butler opined “He’s Miami to his core.” Elsewhere in the arena, Haslem-themed trivia was held in Section 305. Dwyane Wade, who played more games with Haslem than any teammate, sat courtside wearing a No. 40 jersey with his wife Gabriel Union and their daughter Kaavia.

In the end, Haslem made a dagger 3-pointer from the corner, prompting Wade to jump out of his chair. Haslem checked out shortly after to a standing ovation. After the game, he stripped off his shirt to reveal his full-length Florida back tattoo and bent down to hug his family. He then embraced Wade. Finally, Haslem walked off the court for the final time and fans that stuck around several minutes after the buzzer cheered as he waved and walked through the tunnel.

“Probably couldn’t have envisioned it going any better,” Haslem said.

Though he hasn’t gotten consistent minutes in more than half a decade, Haslem has carved out a role as the watchdog of Heat Culture. A walking leader-by-example who embodies the sacrifice, discipline and confidence that the organization has made its mission statement.

“I’m going to miss his spirit. I’m going to miss his voice. I’m going to miss his intentions,” Spoelstra said. “He has incredible, pure, team intentions every single day. He doesn’t have a bad day.”

Haslem will have a role with the organization, perhaps as soon as next season. He hopes to help guide one more deep postseason run from the bench and the locker room. But we have likely seen the last of Haslem on the court.

Rather than have Haslen start, Spoelstra opted to bring him in at the first break in the first quarter so that he could have his own moment in front of a late-arriving Miami crowd. Three minutes in, cheers of “WE WANT HASLEM” echoed from the upper deck. Haslem checked in and immediately drove baseline and missed his first shot – a reverse layup that bounced off the front of the rim. Two possessions later, he set a screen for Tyler Herro, rolled to the basket and finished with a layup for his first points. He was feeling it so, on the very next possession, he uncorked a 3-pointer from the right wing that missed. Moments later, another one from the right corner. Why not? He missed again but a teammate got the offensive rebound, passed it back to Haslem who had lifted back to the right wing and fired. He drained this one to cheers and applause. Throughout his 25 minutes, Haslem trapped Magic ball-handlers, backed his way down into a post-up, and reminded everyone of his patented baseline jumper. In a surprising moment, he ran a fastbreak, fully extended to catch an alley-oop from Duncan Robinson and brought the house down with a dunk.

His final stat line: 24 points on 9 of 17 shooting, including 3 of 7 from 3-point range, three rebounds and three fouls in 24 minutes and 56 seconds.

“I never would get 17 shots up in a regular game,” Haslem said, “but I’m just glad to show I’m still capable of playing this game at a high level.”

Haslem marinated on how he’d handle today. Would he try to go out like Kobe Bryant, who scored 60 in his final game as a Laker? What about Dwyane Wade, who posted a triple-double in his last game with the Heat?

“Hell nah. I can’t do that,” Haslem said. “I just wanted to do it my way.”

There is no way quite like Haslem’s. Local. Undrafted. Champion. No one in league history rivals Haslem’s street cred. He is the rare player whose voice carries with Hall of Famers, role players and bench riders. He joins Kobe and Dirk Nowitzki as the only players to complete 20 seasons with one team, but neither did so for his hometown team.

One last Haslem story: In Wade’s final seasons, Haslem played his longtime teammate one-on-one before games to keep him sharp. After Wade retired, he did the same with Butler. But midway through last season, Heat coaches asked them to limit those one-on-one sessions in order to keep Butler fresh for the actual games. So Haslem turned his attention to the team’s developmental group.

Before Sunday’s game, he challenged two-way contract wing Jamal Cain. Spoelstra peaked in to the practice court and saw Haslem take Cain into the low block, dribble to the middle of the paint and rise up for a clean mid-range shot 14 feet from the basket. Minutes later, Haslem pulled off the same move, except this time it was over Magic big man Goga Bitadze six minutes into his swan song. It was during these same sessions that Haslem honed his 3-point shot. On Sunday, Haslem made three 3-pointers in a game for the first time in his career.

This is the essence of Haslem. Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. After the game, he spoke of developing his 3-pointer because of where the league is going, as if he were 25 and hoping to sign another contract. From growing up in Liberty City to winning two state championships at Miami High and three championships in the NBA, teammates have been inspired by Haslem’s competitive fire.

Soon, the game will be gone. Haslem will pour himself into his businesses and work in the community. He’s openly discussed ownership stake in the Miami Heat franchise. He’s long prepared for this next stage of his life. For one afternoon, however, he wasn’t thinking about others, sacrifice, or the future. He, very deservedly, was putting himself first.

“I was trying to just take in everything,” Haslem said. “Every sound, every move. There were times I felt it was just me out there by myself, to be honest with you. I just wanted to take it all in and not miss a beat. Allow myself to feel how I needed to feel, allow myself to think what I needed to think.

“I just didn’t want to leave this moment with any regrets.”

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