After receiving an inadvertent pop to the right eye, Udonis Haslem displayed a Chris Bosh-like shooting stroke Sunday.
Udonis Haslem had a tough week.
In Game 1 against Indiana last Sunday, Haslem missed all four shots from the floor. In Game 2, he saw his playing time cut in half during a home loss. In Game 3, he was demoted to the reserve role for a rookie -- a rookie who had never played a playoff game, no less -- and played a season-low seven minutes in another loss.
Things were spiraling away from the Heat's co-captain. Perhaps the most prideful and dignified player on the roster, Haslem was forced to watch his team get demoralized in the series from the bench. He could do little but offer high-fives and encouragement, even though his team was getting crushed and pushed around on the floor. In just a week, Haslem was reduced from a crucial starter to a detached observer.
In an ideal world, Haslem was supposed to be the team's replacement for Chris Bosh after the All-Star strained an abdominal muscle in Game 1. But Haslem had been mired in the worst shooting slump of his career and wasn't effective in guarding Roy Hibbert, a center who stood about half a foot taller. With LeBron James shifting to the power forward slot, Haslem was the odd man out. It was a tough week, to be sure.
But on Sunday, however, Haslem got his groove back.
It started with a put-back dunk early in the second quarter, as Haslem rose up out of nowhere and slammed Dwyane Wade's miss with one hand. It was a stunning play from Haslem, considering it looked his shoes had been filled with cement over the last couple of weeks.
Then in the fourth quarter, it all came together for Haslem. And in doing so, it temporarily welded the Heat's Big Three again. With jumper after jumper, Haslem rediscovered his mid-range game that has made him so valuable as a floor-spacing big man over his career. Haslem scored 14 points in Game 4, the first time a Heat big man scored more than 10 points since Bosh went down.
What caused the change?
A little encouragement from James and Wade, Haslem told reporters in Indianapolis after the game.
"D-Wade and LeBron told me to just play my game," Haslem said. "Pick and pop.”
Ah, the pick-and-pop. For those who don't fall into the basketball junkie category, the pick-and-pop might be a foreign term. The "pop" refers to the big man who "pops" out to the mid-range area after setting a screen on the ball. Instead of rolling to the rim, the big man stays back for a jumper to clear the paint. For the 6-8 Haslem, rolling toward the 7-2 Hibbert and 6-10 David West wasn't a bankable strategy.
"I did some things out there that I was used to doing," Haslem said. "The pick-and-pop has really been my game the majority of my career, so instead of rolling to basket into those trees down there I just flared back. I’m more comfortable doing that than anything."
It's true Haslem stayed away from the basket area where he's getting blocked twice as often as his normal career rate. With the Heat up by five points heading into the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Wade and Haslem started running their pick-and-pop game. Wearing a bandage on a cut over his eye that required nine stitches after the game, Haslem found pockets in the Pacers defense and waited for the pass from his driving teammates.
The barrage started with a short jumper on the right baseline with just under six minutes left. Then another pop on the right side when the Pacers put two on Wade. Drilled it. And then another at the top of the key. Hit it again. And then the dagger with 1:12 left in the fourth quarter; he drained a jumper from the left elbow after Hibbert sunk into the paint to put the Heat up by seven.
For a five-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, Haslem matched the Pacers point-for-point, each tallying eight points down the stretch. Without Haslem's timely shot-making, the Heat might not have pulled away as they comfortably as they did.
This was vintage Haslem. The pick-and-pop game had vanished from his repertoire recently, and the Heat sorely missed that paint decongestant with Bosh sidelined. The Heat's offense sings when Bosh pulls opposing big men out of the key to cover jump shots (Hibbert or West, in the case of the Pacers). A pick-and-pop shooter becomes vital in opening up the lane for Wade and James to penetrate, but that had been stopped up recently.
Haslem, who had shot a measly 3-for-12 on jumpers in the playoffs heading into Sunday's game, wasn't a threat anymore. But now, he might be. If he can keep shooting that way in Game 5, the Heat should be able to get what they want offensively. So much of the Heat's offense requires an able pick-and-roll partner that draws the defense away from James and Wade.
To think Haslem's jump shot is suddenly cured might be a bit optimistic; it's just one game, after all. But for one game, the Heat found a replacement for Bosh as a member of the Heat's vaunted trio. By balancing the floor for James and Wade to thrive in the paint and grabbing rebounds, Haslem could be the most important player for the Heat going forward outside of the Big Two.
If Haslem can maintain his breakthrough scoring performance from Game 4 into Game 5 on Tuesday, the Heat may have found the pressure release they so desperately needed after Bosh went down.
"I just got back to my comfort zone," Haslem said. "Pickin' and poppin'."