The season began with Udonis Haslem inspiring the Miami Heat with his words. He gave a passionate speech in the locker room nearly seven months ago, talking about how desperately he wanted to win a championship to honor his recently deceased mother.
Now, Haslem's inspiring the Heat with his play.
Or, perhaps more accurately, simply by playing.
He scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half, and had a pair of dunks — the first was his first basket since Nov. 20 — to begin and end a critical 10-0 run. That was the final margin Wednesday in Miami's 85-75 win over Chicago Bulls that tied the Eastern Conference finals at a game apiece.
"Huge. Huge," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "He was the player of the game. No question about it."
Wade said those words on a night where LeBron James fought off a cold for game-highs of 29 points and 10 rebounds, plus scored nine points in a late 11-2 spurt that sealed the win.
James had the dazzling numbers and spectacular finish, but the clear spark came from one of the two Miami players left from the 2006 championship season.
"It's kind of hard to be patient when you work so hard to get back," Haslem said. "But I understand, we've had a formula that's been working for us. My teammates have done a tremendous job of getting us to this point. So I just had to be patient."
Not any more, he doesn't.
He'll be in the rotation Sunday when Miami hosts Game 3 of the East finals, what will be the Miami native's first home game since getting injured. The crowd roar when he checks in may make the building shake.
"That's what we've been waiting on since November," James said Wednesday, discussing Haslem's impact. "I'm happy for him. Just putting in the time and the effort, just getting back, getting back to game shape, feeling healthy, feeling confident. He helped change the game for us."
Haslem ruptured the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot on Nov. 20 while guarding Zach Randolph in a game at Memphis. He was carried off the court and the fear was that his season was over, since the injury he had can take up to a year to fully heal in some cases.
He wanted to come back in four months, and actually returned for short stints in two previous postseason games, looking very rusty.
On Wednesday, that was anything but the case.
"We really shouldn't care who's out there," Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. "We still have to play the same way. But he came (up) huge for them, shooting the ball well, rebounding the ball well. There was too many hustle plays that we didn't get."
Hustle plays are Haslem's calling card.
The Heat track every imaginable statistic, even dives for loose balls. Haslem is the franchise's all-time leader in most of the gritty categories.
"It was certainly inspirational, the minutes he gave us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And that's who he's been his entire career. He's always led us in charges taken, hits, dives on the floor. … He's smart. He's tough. He does all the little intangibles, and that's why we've always said, the image of a Miami Heat player, that's Udonis Haslem."
Fans got a glimpse of what he really means to the Heat.
When the horn sounded Wednesday, as players filed off the court showing little emotion, Heat owner Micky Arison and Haslem shared a long embrace, the tough-as-nails player resting his head on the shoulder of the man who signs his paychecks.
He was nearly a salary-cap casualty last summer, when Miami found ways to lure James and Chris Bosh while keeping Wade. They all left millions on the table to play together, and Wade sacrificed a bit more money than the other two members of Miami's "Big 3" for one reason — Haslem.
Knowing his closest friend in the Heat locker room was considering signing with Denver for five years and about $34 million, Wade all but resigned himself to the fact that Haslem was gone. Wade and Haslem share an agent, Chicago-based Henry Thomas, who met with Heat President Pat Riley in a last-ditch effort to find a solution.
It didn't take long for a $20 million, five-year deal to get hammered out and keep Haslem in Miami.
"No one really talks about what U-D means to this team," Wade said.
If it was a secret, it's not anymore — not after his Game 2 effort, which had some drawing comparisons to his 17-point, 10-rebound, playing-with-a-bad-shoulder effort against Dallas in the title-clinching game of the 2006 finals.
"We're all happy, not just because of what he gave us, but just the fact that he was out there," Bosh said after Game 2. "U-D only has one speed, and that's 'go.' What he's done and what he's been through this whole season, that just shows how tough he is."
Haslem lobbied Spoelstra for weeks about his ability to play, insisting he was fine. After Game 1, when the Bulls manhandled Miami for rebounds and carved through Miami's defense with relative ease on the way to a 21-point win, the player and coach sat down for another chat.
Haslem repeated his line: "I'm ready." This time, Spoelstra believed him, and with perhaps the season at stake, called his number often in the second half.
It paid off, and the road to the NBA title now goes through Miami.
"Some guys," Spoelstra said, "you can't define what's inside them."