Hustle plays making difference for Heat

The pivotal question for the Miami Heat this season wasn't who would get the ball, it was who would get the ball? You know, who's gonna grab it if it's there for the taking during those critical moments in the game when it's not about the preferred choice to take the shot, not about skill or talent at all, but simply a question of who wants it more?

We spent so much time focusing on who should have the chance to win the game, we lost track of determining who would be responsible for making the plays to set up the winning shot in the first place.

Who was going to be the guy willing to exchange a floor burn for a possession? To sell out for something that wouldn't even show up in the box score?

The Heat have found the answer up and down their roster of late, which is why they're on the brink of the NBA Finals. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, "This series is about endurance. It's about the grind," which means, at this point, it's about the Heat's mastery of those unglamorous elements.

Udonis Haslem was supposed to be that gritty guy, but he was lost for most of the season with an injured left foot that required surgery. Now he's back, with a piece of threaded metal a couple of inches long in that foot and the same willingness to make whatever plays his team requires. It's the reason he's in so many of the pictures of the 2006 NBA championship run that line the Heat's hallway in AmericanAirlines Arena.

It's not just Haslem, though. Joel Anthony carves out playing time because of his penchant for ending up around the ball.

Even Mike Miller has turned into that guy. Miller hasn't always delivered the outside shooting the Heat expected, but he's morphed into a guy capable of grabbing 16 rebounds in the past three games of reserve duty.

It's even LeBron James, who was right in the middle of a play that finalized the Heat's victory over the Bulls in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and epitomized the reason they're up 3-1 in the series.

With the Heat ahead by six points in the final half-minute of overtime, James found himself battling with the Bulls' Joakim Noah for the ball. As James got a hand on it, the ball headed toward the sideline next to the Heat's bench, and James hit the floor in pursuit, crawling until he could bat the ball to keep it inbounds. Haslem hit the deck himself, corralling the loose ball and getting it to Miller. The Heat had possession, and they had the game.

"You missed the block on the play," LeBron pointed out, referencing the Dwyane Wade flash from the weak side to catch a Derrick Rose shot before it could reach the basket and start the sequence.

That's not what impressed me. The block was a display of athleticism, but not among the three most impressive athletic feats in the game on a night Rose had two breathtaking dunks in the first half and James threw down a jam with such force that the assault on the rim could be heard throughout the arena.

This game wasn't won with athleticism. It was won with grit. And the Heat got grittier.

"It's whatever it takes at that point," James said, transitioning to his description of the play. "Joakim got a hand on it. I wanted to try to fight him as much as possible. I was able to strip the ball away from him. Dove on the ball. The ball was headed out of bounds. Once I tipped it and I saw it rolling and I saw [Haslem], I already knew we had the ball. Nobody is going to take the ball from him. That was just a great all-around team possession for us."

There were times this season when the Heat tried to act too cool for all that gritty stuff, as if they'd prefer to pay someone else to handle the dirty work while they sat back and checked messages on their cellphones. That attitude could even be seen in the first game of this series, when the Heat played defense as well as any coach could hope for but forgot to finish the job by boxing out and grabbing the rebound.

Since then, it's been a virtual standoff on the boards, one reason Miami won the next three games. It was the Bulls who had the smaller margin for error in Game 4 and were about to step into a traditionally inescapable hole if they lost. Yet the Heat matched them. I've never seen a game with so many rebounds that were touched by both teams, with the first guy to the ball seemingly unable to get it among the crowd of people.

Spoelstra keeps talking about the need to stay in character, yet the Heat keep adopting new roles. Even Wade is trying to take charges, something he admitted is among the things he doesn't normally do. Miami is averaging 6.6 blocked shots per game in this postseason, almost 1.5 more than during the regular season.

"When we had training camp on that Army base, defense is what we talked about and hard work is what we talked about," Chris Bosh said. "We just kept going and we kept pushing each other and pushing each other, and we have to continue to do that."

The closer they get to the championship round, the more they're doing the typically unheralded things that result in championships.