As the Heat’s offense sputtered and the Knicks rallied to take the lead in the fourth quarter Friday night, a few small sections inside AmericanAirlines Arena could be heard chanting ‘We want Whiteside!’
It’s unclear if Erik Spoelstra heard them. Either way, the Heat’s coach didn’t heed their advice.
Instead of putting his starting center and the Heat’s highest paid player back into the game after he went to the bench with 4:01 remaining in the third quarter, Spoelstra turned to Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson in his frontcourt for the final nine minutes and 45 seconds of regulation and all five minutes of overtime in Miami’s 107-103 victory.
Spoelstra said his decision to go “small” was based on trying to prevent Knicks 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis from beating his team on the perimeter after the New York went small themselves, putting Enes Kanter on the bench and moving Porzings from power forward to center.
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Spoelstra’s move paid off as the Heat (21-17) won for the sixth time in their last eight games and moved into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. It also provided evidence the Heat’s coach wasn’t kidding when he said upon Hassan Whiteside’s return from a 13-game absence two weeks ago no one in the Heat’s power rotation would be “gifted minutes.” Instead, Spoelstra has continued to play the hotter hands in crunch time, including in Wednesday’s win over the Pistons when Olynyk and Johnson also closed that game out and Whiteside watched from the bench over the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.
“We become a much more, significantly more versatile team with James Johnson on the court,” Spoelstra answered when asked before Friday’s win what he likes about pairing Olynyk and Johnson together so much. “We already have versatility throughout our roster, but that takes us to a totally different level. And then when you have two guys at the same time, two bigs that can handle, can shoot, make plays off the dribble, play in the post, there’s not anywhere on the court where you can’t be effective. That [pairing] just presents some challenges.”
The numbers show Olynyk, who has started alongside Whiteside at power forward since his return, and Johnson, who has started 11 games at power forward, have been the Heat’s most productive frontcourt combination. They’ve logged more minutes together (405) than any other frontcourt pairing and Miami has outscored opponents by 38 points when they’ve been on the floor together, the sixth-best two-man combination on the team when it comes to plus-minus.
By comparison, the Whiteside-Johnson combo is plus-7 in 138 minutes together and the Olynyk-Whiteside combo is minus-7 in 90 minutes of work. The best big-man pairing for rookie Bam Adebayo has been with Olynyk (plus-5 in 158 minutes). Adebayo has played only one minute with Whiteside and is a combined minus-43 in 200 minutes with Johnson.
So why in the words of their teammates is the Johnson-Olynyk combination so good for the Heat? In short, point guard Goran Dragic explained, because their ability to play on the perimeter puts less bodies in the paint and creates the necessary spacing for Miami’s offense to flow.
“Those guys are out there playing on the perimeter, handing it off,” Wayne Ellington explained. “They get in there, they make the right play, they’re not forcing anyting up inside. They’re kicking it out for the open look. They’re amazing. They’re a great tandem. The ball moves so well. We help each other, screen for each other. It’s the ultimate team basketball.”
As badly as Whiteside wanted to be in the game in crunch time Friday, he seemed to understand the reasoning behind why Spoelstra stuck with what worked – and the notion of how this could be the way things work moving forward.
“That’s what it’s looking like,” Whiteside answered when asked if the ‘hot hand’ will be who plays down the stretch of games. “It’s looking like he’s running just different people. That’s what it's looking like. But you know we got the win. We’re fifth in the East now. So, let’s keep it going.”
In the five games he’s played in since returning from a 13-game absence on Dec. 26, Whiteside has averaged 11 points, eight rebounds and 0.8 blocks on 49 percent shooting. He’s played only 11 of a possible 65 minutes total in the fourth quarter or overtime during that stretch. He also hasn’t logged more than 29 minutes in a single game.
Friday, Whiteside scored 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter and finished with seven rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
“I work on my game every day,” Whiteside said. “So everything you see me do on the court, I do it all the time. I’m working on my game. I can’t control my minutes. But I’m just going to come in and keep getting better. Whenever I’m out there, I produce.”