Even when the Miami Heat wins lately, someone important goes down in the process.
Less than a week after Dion Waiters badly sprained his left ankle in a blowout of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Hassan Whiteside left Tuesday night’s 112-97 rout of the Phoenix Suns with a laceration in his right hand that could cost him and the team dearly as the Heat’s playoff push continues.
A team spokesman said Whiteside needed 13 stitches to close the gash between his middle finger and ring finger, three more stitches than the last time he cut his hand open two seasons ago and missed three games because of it.
“We’ll find out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked if he knew how bad Whiteside’s injury was. “It’s in anwkward place in his hand. I know people are thinking ‘Is it the same as two years ago? Is it worse?’ We’ll see.”
Before he sliced his hand against the backboard as he attempted to block a shot by Suns rookie forward Marquese Chriss with 2:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, Whiteside, who was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week on Monday, was playing at an elite level.
He led Miami (35-36) with 23 points, 14 rebounds, two steals and three blocks and set the franchise record for rebounds in a season in the process, surpassing Rony Seikaly’s total of 934 in 1991-92.
The Heat, which moved back into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff standings with Detroit’s unexpected loss at Brooklyn, outscored the Suns by 23 with Whiteside on the court Tuesday.
After the game, the team said the 7-foot center wouldn’t be available to answer questions until the team practices at AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday. Whiteside, however, did post a photo of himself with St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler after the game on Instagram. His right hand was heavily bandaged in the photo.
It’s clear Whiteside teammates are concerned.
Miami hosts Toronto on Thursday and then opens up a pivotal three-game road trip Sunday in Boston, which includes a stop at Detroit two days later. The Pistons currently own a 2-1 head-to-head advantage that could prove crucial down the stretch.
“Hopefully he’s going to be OK,” said Goran Dragic, who had 16 points, four rebounds and two assists in Tuesday’s win.
Said James Johnson of Whiteside: “We’ve got to get him to play somehow, some way.”
After getting scorched by Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers Sunday night, the Heat got back to its defensive ways Tuesday.
Phoenix, which owns the third-worst record in the league at 22-49, shot 43.9 from the field and turned it over 24 times, leading directly to 23 Heat points. The turnovers were a season-high by a Heat opponent in a game this season.
On the other side of the court, Miami shot 43.8 percent, scored 50 points in the paint, 25 second chance points and was 11-of-27 from three-point range. It’s the 19th consecutive game the Heat has won when it’s made double-digit three-pointers.
Early on, Whiteside, the league’s leading rebounder, couldn’t get a basket to fall along with Goran Dragic, who finished 6-of-15 shooting after shooting 6-for-22 in Sunday’s loss.
But the Heat’s bench was stellar.
Tyler Johnson (17 points, six rebounds, four assists) scored nine points in his first two minutes of action in the first quarter and Wayne Ellington (11 points) made three consecutive three-pointers late in the second quarter to help the Heat build a 59-46 at the break. Miami’s bench, which came in averaging 39 points a game (seventh-best in the league), had 40 of the team’s 59 points at the half.
“We talk about it all the time: Can you inspire the team with your play?” Spoelstra said. “That’s not necessarily scoring the basketball. But your effort, your energy, your activity that can inspire the next guy to match that. That’s what you saw with that second unit. They become ignitable.
“Even Okaro [White’s] minutes were extremely inspiring. The offensive rebounds, the extra efforts, all you saw was his body flying around. And it’s hard to stand and compete like a zombie when you see guys playing that hard. That really did ignite us. We started off a little bit slow, a little bit sluggish in the first quarter. But from then on I was pleased with how we competed.”
Whiteside, though, was the catalyst. He missed seven of his first nine shots, but finished 9-of-18 for the game.
“Things really took off on our bench when he went coast to coast [for a dunk in the first half],” James Johnson said. “You don't see big men doing that. The last big man to do that was Shaquille O’Neal. His confidence is growing on both ends of the floor.”
Now, the Heat waits to see how long he might be out.
“We got Willie [Reed], we got UD,” Dragic said when asked what the Heat would do if Whiteside can’t play Thursday. “UD is a veteran guy who’s fought a lot of battles for this club and he’s really the anchor of this team. He’s a true professional and I know he’s going to be ready.
“Even Willie, when Hassan was out for a couple games, he had a tremendous game for us. Next man up.”