The Miami Heat lost at home on Sunday for only the second time in its last 17 games at AmericanAirlines Arena, and for the first time in a long time Hassan Whiteside’s impact was hardly felt down the stretch.
After scoring his team’s first 10 points and posting 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks at halftime, the Heat’s $98 million center picked up four fouls in a four-minute 20-second stretch in the third quarter and produced just one point and three rebounds in less than 14 minutes of second half work.
But instead of being critical of Whiteside’s foul-plagued second half performance, coach Erik Spoelstra had his center’s back and took issue with the officiating.
“Those are the plays I want him to make,” Spoelstra said after the Damian Lillard scorched the Heat for 49 points Sunday and dropped Miami from seventh to ninth in the Eastern Conference standings. “I told him when he came to the bench I want him going vertical. I want him being a presence. I thought he did that.
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“He’s getting so much more savvy in terms of being able to block shots and protect the rim. He had one where he went up vertical and forced a miss and another one where he didn't jump and I thought he was there. Both of them they called fouls. But he’s building the right habits.”
That habit building process has been going on for awhile now with Whiteside, who has turned a corner over the last month and a half in terms of leadership, maturity and understanding in the eyes of his coach and teammates. The NBA has taken noticed as well and named him the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday.
Last year, with maybe one or two bad plays it was easy to tell that he wasn’t engaged. I think this year he might have a play and we’ll bring it to him on the sideline and we’ll say ‘Come on big guy you’ve got to let it go.’ And he’ll move onto the next play. It’s not a full game anymore of not being engaged.
Udonis Haslem on Hassan Whiteside
Team captain Udonis Haslem has maintained a close distance to Whiteside all season, getting in his ear from game-to-game. But Haslem says he hasn’t had to have too many deep conversations with Whiteside this season because he’s learned to move on from a bad play or series of bad plays a little easier.
“Last year, with maybe one or two bad plays it was easy to tell that he wasn’t engaged,” Haslem said last week after Whiteside had 20 points, 17 rebounds, two blocks and finished plus 11 in a win over New Orleans’ Twin Tower All-Star tandem of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. “I think this year he might have a play and we’ll bring it to him on the sideline and we'll say ‘Come on big guy you’ve got to let it go.’ And he’ll move onto the next play. It’s not a full game anymore of not being engaged.
“In this league you’re going to have good games and bad games and games where you feel terrible or tired. I guess a huge proof that he’s turned the corner was that Indiana game last Sunday with that weird back-to-back. Him not feeling 100 percent and being maybe a little banged up, legs not feeling great, and for him to come out dominate from a mental standpoint, his body was able to follow with that performance.”
Although he’s averaging about two fewer points (15.7 per game) and two fewer shots per game than he did during the Heat’s 11-30 start, Whiteside is shooting better from the field (57.2 percent) and better at the free throw line (71.8 percent) and has posted the fifth-highest plus/minus rating (+142) among the league’s 94 centers over the Heat’s current 23-6 run. Through Miami’s first 41 games, Whiteside ranked 83rd among centers in plus/minus (-100).
“He puts our basketball team into a different level when he plays at his highest level and when he keeps on pushing limits to get to another level,” Spoelstra said last week. “He’s had impactful games in the last six weeks that weren’t even close to a 20-20 type game. There’s not many guys like him. There really aren’t.”
Even when he’s performed well individually of late, Whiteside has deferred the attention to his teammates. He’s preferred to praise James Johnson for his superior isolation defense and said he was chanting along with Heat fans when they were shouting “M-V-P!” for Goran Dragic when he scored 33 points in his return from injury in a win over the Pelicans.
“I mean he's getting better each day. He’s really matured,” Dragic said. “Maybe some fans don’t realize [it], but he’s doing those small details that are really big for this team – especially in pick-and-roll defense. Of course, everybody looks only at the numbers, but he does so much for this team. He’s the anchor of this team on defense and on offense, collapsing defenses for us. It’s really easy to play with him.
“He understands now not every game you're going to feel OK. Some players they would just use the excuse, we came in late, 5 a.m., it’s back-to-back, I’m going to shut it down. But he didn’t. He stepped in, played an unbelievable game at Indiana [a week ago Sunday]. He had 26 [points] and 21 [rebounds]. He was leading the team out there. We need that from him every night because when he’s doing that it’s really tough to beat us.”
Little by litte, Whiteside, who is looking to become the first Heat player in franchise history to lead the league in rebounding (a year after he led it in blocks), is also leaving his mark on the franchise’s record book.
With his five offensive rebounds Sunday, he moved past Shaquille O’Neal for eighth on the Heat’s all-time list (621) and with his 10 rebounds overall, Whiteside tied Rony Seikaly for the most double-digit rebound games in a season (56) in team history. He’s also now 12 rebounds shy of matching Seikaly’s season record for total rebounds (912) and five double-doubles short of matching Seikaly’s franchise record for double-doubles in a season (53).
“I feel like Rony Seikaly has all the records here,” Whiteside said. “Just to be mentioned with him is great, especially with the things he did as far as rebounding goes. He was a tremendous rebounder. With all the talented bigs that have come through here, from Alonzo to Shaq, it’s great to even have a record on your franchise.”
In the end, the numbers don’t matter to Spoelstra, though. He said what he’s enjoyed most is seeing Whiteside learn to take joy in his teammates success and become a better leader overall.
“That’s why we wanted to be patient while pushing him to be uncomfortable – so he could get to places where he hasn’t been to before,” Spoelstra said. “He’s had to be open to that, but he always has been. He took a chance on us [last summer] just as much as we took a chance on him. He wanted to be something more as a pro basketball player. He wanted to prove that he could do more. He wanted to prove that he could be a winner, but also opening it up to know that he has to continue to learn how to win.
“He really only has three years of experience in this league and all the responsibility we’ve put on his shoulders this year has required that he’s open to learning and impacting winning. That has been the biggest part of being a better teammate, learning how to influence teammates as a leader by example, but also with his voice. All that is getting better.”
COMING UP NEXT
Tuesday: Suns (22-48) at Heat (34-36)
When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish)
Series: Suns lead 32-24
Scouting report: Devin Booker scored 18 of his game-high 27 points in the second half to lead Phoenix to a 99-90 Suns win at home back on Jan. 3. Phoenix was blown out in Detroit Sunday and is 9-24 on the road this season.