Hassan Whiteside is not saving this season for the Miami Heat.
He’s fun to watch, yes, and counting his rebounds during games has turned into a nightly distraction for Heat fans, but the team’s “plucked from the D-League” center is not manna from the heavens. Whiteside has been feasting, but the Heat is still starving in the desert.
This current road trip terminates, mercifully, in San Antonio on Friday with the Heat’s first game against the Spurs since Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals. As he did in the Finals, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has a team that could end this matchup quickly. The Heat, well, the Heat doesn’t have Dwyane Wade, which means the Heat doesn’t have much of a chance despite Whiteside averaging 16.8 points, 15.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in his last six games while shooting 61.3 percent from the field.
Why the dour tone? Why so glum? Just look at some more important numbers.
Playing without Wade these last 4 ½ games has been discouragingly difficult for the Miami Heat. The team is 1-4 in those games, and that’s despite one of the NBA’s best rags-to-riches success stories since Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks’ “Linsanity” in 2012. “Hassanity” has been breathtaking at times, like on Wednesday night when he had 24 points and 20 rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves, but his meteoric rise from nothing isn’t translating into wins.
Whiteside became just the seventh player in Heat franchise history to record at least 20 points and 20 rebounds on Wednesday, but the Heat still lost to the worst team in the NBA. The Timberwolves’ 102-101 victory was just its fifth at home all season.
“Every time you lose a close game like that, it’s always a heartbreaker, especially when you fought the whole 48 to get a win,” Whiteside said. “I really hate that we lost at the very end like that. We’re going to move on to the Spurs and just keep playing.”
On Tuesday, the Heat lost to the Detroit Pistons despite 34 points from Chris Bosh. The problem was obvious. The Heat’s guards were collectively awful. They combined for just eight points, with five of those coming from shooting guard Tyler Johnson, who is playing on a 10-day contract.
On Wednesday, the Heat’s guards were excellent — relatively excellent, that is — and the team still lost. That’s what’s most troubling right now for the reeling Heat, which at 21-28 is seven games under .500 for the first time this season and, for the first time, close to slipping down to ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Take away that whacky inbounds turnover in the final minute between Norris Cole and Whiteside, and, all things considered, Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was actually a positive step forward for the Heat’s guards. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra challenged his backcourt to be more aggressive, and they were, but it didn’t matter.
Consider the transformative effort by the Heat’s guards from one night to the next:
▪ After scoring just one point against the Pistons on Tuesday, Heat guard Mario Chalmers had 12 points and five assists on Wednesday against the Timberwolves.
▪ Shabazz Napier didn’t attempt a shot or a free throw against the Pistons, and he bounced back with two three-pointers and a season-high seven assists in Minneapolis.
▪ Cole was the best of all. He had two points in 33 minutes in that loss to the Pistons. Against the Timberwolves, he had 15 points, which was his first time to score in double figures since Dec. 21.
“As guards, we’re always challenged every night,” Cole said after being asked about going head-to-head against Ricky Rubio. “There’s a lot of good guards in this league. Personally, I love the challenge.
“I was due for a better game, a good game. Too bad it didn’t end in a win. We still have room for improvement. We have to continue to take the challenge every night.”
Chris Bosh had a different perspective.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Bosh said. “They crawl back into the game with no resistance. It’s like we’re not learning anything.”
Actually, the Heat has learned a lot this past week. Without Wade, everything has had to be perfect for this team to beat a team like the 11th-place Boston Celtics. The Heat defeated the Celtics 83-75 on Sunday. It’s the team’s only victory since Wade went down with a sprained right hamstring. Spoelstra called it one of the team’s “top-five-rated” defensive performances of the past month.
Bosh wasn’t concerned with the improved offensive numbers of his guards after Wednesday’s loss. It was the backcourt’s lack of defense that had him steaming mad. Even with a seven-foot center playing like the defensive player of the year over the past few weeks, the Heat is sliding down the standings of the Eastern Conference. Suddenly, the unthinkable — possibly missing the playoffs — is a cold reality.
Heat at Spurs
When/where: 9:30 p.m., AT&T Center.
TV/radio: Sun Sports and ESPN/FM 104.3, AM 790 and WAQI 710AM (Spanish).
Series: Spurs lead 35-18.
Of note: Heat forward Shawne Williams is listed as questionable with ‘right hip pain.’ Dwyane Wade (hamstring) currently is not traveling with the team.