James Johnson said the Heat “got its heart back” on Wednesday.
It’s not beating at full strength yet.
But once it does, the Heat hopes it will right the ship on a young season that has had more downs than ups through its first seven games.
Johnson was referring to center Hassan Whiteside, who returned to the court during the Heat’s 97-91 win over the Bulls after missing the previous five games with a left-knee bone bruise.
“Oh man, it always feels good to get our heart back, man,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s game.
In his first five-plus minutes, Whiteside collected eight rebounds.
After 13-plus minutes on the court, Whiteside had his second double-double of the season in as many games.
But then the lack of real game action and full-court work in practice over the past two weeks due to the injury took its toll.
“A little bit, a little bit toward the end,” Whiteside said when asked whether he felt fatigued as the game went on. “But I expected that to come because I’ve just been running in the pool, so it’s hard to duplicate an actual NBA game.”
Whiteside ended up with 13 points and 14 rebounds in 26 minutes overall and exited the game for good with 2:31 left in the third quarter.
“I thought his first seven minutes were outstanding,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “His rebounds, he was grabbing those about 12 feet above the floor. His defense was great. His communication was great. His energy was great. He was giving us a presence in the paint, and then I think he hit the wall after that.”
Whiteside said after Wednesday’s game that he was hoping to play in the Heat’s previous game Monday against the Timberwolves.
“No pun intended … they just didn’t want to throw me to the ’Wolves,” Whiteside said. “See what I did there? So I was hopeful for that game, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get out there. But this game, I was happy I was able to at least get a home game for the crowd.”
The Heat had a limit on how many minutes they wanted Whiteside to play in his first game back. Whiteside said after the game that restriction will depend on how his body reacts as he continues to play.
The Heat (3-4) opens a six-game road trip on Friday in Denver.
Even if the Heat remains cautious with Whiteside’s playing time, he will no doubt play a vital role against a tough Nuggets frontcourt led by third-year center Nikola Jokic.
Whiteside and Jokic battled twice last season in games that the Heat and Nuggets split.
Jokic averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in those games, and Whiteside averaged 20.5 points and 13.5 rebounds.
Jokic is averaging 16.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 32 minutes per game through Denver’s first eight games this season.
Later in the trip, Whiteside might match up against more of the NBA’s top centers such as Rudy Gobert (Jazz), DeAndre Jordan (Clippers) and Andre Drummond (Pistons).
Even the mere presence of Whiteside, if he can play consistently as he did in the first half Wednesday, is something that could help the Heat start to remedy its early-season defensive issues.
“It’s a game changer, man,” Dion Waiters said. “I think he grabbed eight rebounds in two minutes or something crazy. So if you got a guy back there like that, a lot of times guards got to think. Like tonight, I saw a couple guards hesitate just because of his presence, and that’s huge for us.
“Once he gets his wind and gets back to the swing of things and we keep coming around and we keep building off this and we keep getting better one game at a time, it’s a marathon, man. We just got to try to continue to keep building and move forward.”