Together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem shared a warm embrace to encapsulate a third championship last June. The longest-tenured Miami Heat players signed professional contracts in August of 2003 and suffered a 15-win season six years ago, but conversations between the two begin on the successes and ability to sneak up on people doubting their NBA longevity.
This season, the Heat devised what they phrased as a “maintenance” scheme to maintain the strength in Wade’s knees – only discreetly involving Haslem, a postseason savior hidden in the deep reaches of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation for a reason. Haslem went the entirety of February benched, given doses of Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision, and will miss over 34 games for the same cause.
No key contributor in a title run simply disappears like this, healthy and able. Haslem had started 19 of 23 playoff games a year ago, knocking down clutch jumpers and conducting critical defensive stands, absorbing the physicality of the Indiana Pacers’ frontcourt and never fearing the consequences. While Wade and Spoelstra held endless dialogue about his “maintenance,” privately Haslem never expected his own protective plan, never saw all the DNP-CDs coming in a healthy season.
Only Spoelstra’s system and culture and the best player in basketball afford the absences of Wade and Haslem for most of the season, and still compete for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“Oh, no, I didn’t know I was going to be sitting all those games this year,” Haslem told RealGM. “Had no idea. It was difficult going through the situation, but I kept myself ready. I worked out every day with [James Jones], Rashard [Lewis], [Michael] Beasley, Toney Douglas and Justin Hamilton, playing three-on-three and keeping each other encouraged.”
As the basketball microscope focused on Wade, Miami concealed Haslem, too, and now the 33-year-old finds his rhythm in the season’s final weeks. As an undrafted player 11 years into his career, Haslem’s an ultimate overachiever. At 6-foot-8, he closed any gap in height or power with grit and a fearless mind. When Haslem buried six jumpers and had 17 points in Game 3 of the Conference Finals last May, some teammates would say in the post-game locker room, “Don’t sleep on U.D.”
Someone assuredly will in May and June, and Haslem has capitalized so often. For now, Spoelstra trusts Lewis and Haslem in the rotation, but the coach knows that leaving just spot minutes for Shane Batter – with his penchant to make crucial shots and place his body on the line – is an unlikely proposition in the playoffs.
Everyone has a calling come postseason, Spoelstra says, and now he’s challenging his locker room to sustain a competitive disposition, to stay motivated against desperate teams.
No matter how wise the Heat’s approach with Wade could turn out to be, there are varying beliefs around the league about a player fluctuating in game action, fluctuating in flow, in his prime years. None of it would matter should a hamstring or a knee give out, like his right hamstring had last week due to spasms late in the loss to the Pacers. In the end, Wade will play less than 60 games for the first time in a full (non-lockout) regular season since 2007-08.
“For Dwyane, it’s precaution,” Haslem said. “Managing his body and making sure it doesn’t get worse.”
Their diligence to Wade’s fitness pushed Miami to scour for combo guards before the trade deadline, and Pat Riley ultimately acquired Toney Douglas from the Golden State Warriors in January. Despite speculation surrounding a possible parting upon his arrival, the Heat never notified Douglas about plans to complete a buyout or release, a source told RealGM.
Douglas understood he was kept around for moments when the voids of Wade and Ray Allen created available minutes in the backcourt, and he’s scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished nine assists over the past two games.
“I know I can play, and when I’m on the court, I produce and do my job,” Douglas said. He was part of the New York Knicks team that lost to Miami in the first round in 2012, and when traded, he saw the selfless attitude within a locker room with championship credibility. “Right when I came in, I could tell the top players – LeBron [James], Wade and Chris [Bosh] – lead by example. It’s all about winning. There is a winning mentality here.”
Only about winning for the Miami Heat, and out of a philosophy from the San Antonio Spurs’ playbook, a team with title pedigree must be handled delicately. Rest and attrition is valued in the journey from October to mid-April. Together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem share the same highs of prosperity, the same low of futility, in this franchise. Together, their plan for freshness could prove genius in June.