NEW YORK - Minutes after Hassan Whiteside’s tip-in in Detroit on Tuesday gave the Heat its first regular season at-the-buzzer win in seven years, coach Erik Spoelstra said something as eye-opening as anything he has uttered after a game this season.
“Hassan, he is, maybe for the first time, playing more for the guys next to him than he is for himself,” Spoelstra said, adding that "he really cares about the guys in the locker room, and that's one of the most powerful things I've seen as a coach.”
Since his arrival here in November 2014, Whiteside could always fill the stat sheet. But Tuesday was the quintessential example of “impacting winning” – the phrase Spoelstra has emphasized to him all season.
“His overall basketball knowledge is so much better,” guard Goran Dragic said. “His play is so much better. People only look at the stats. He's doing those small things that are making the team much, much better. In the future, he's going to be an All-Star. He is the kind of player who makes a difference in every game. He makes my job so easier if he’s setting good screens and most of the time when you miss the shot, he can get the second chance points or get the rebound.”
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A general manager with another team said last season that Whiteside needed to remain in a place with strong veteran leaders who could re-focus him if he got distracted.
Dwyane Wade, who said he was very hard on Whiteside, and Luol Deng (who also offered guidance) changed teams last summer, but Whiteside has continued to evolve on the court and mature off it because of the excellent work of the coaching staff, his own diligence and Udonis Haslem staying in his ear.
Asked to name his toughest critic, Whiteside immediately names Spoelstra.
Anybody close? “Alonzo Mourning,” he said. “But Coach Spo is every day. Alonzo is every once in a while. Alonzo always says, "Back when I played, this is what I did.’
“Coach Spo is every day criticism. After every game, Coach Spo always says I did this good, but he always finds something. He criticizes me a lot but also gives me complements when I'm doing well. He does it in team [meetings], one-on-one, both.
“I've gotten used to it. That's the kind of coach he is; he wants the most out of his players. It always helps. I feel like I got better since I got here.”
Whiteside appreciates Juwan Howard and the other assistants for also extracting more from his game.
Don’t underestimate Haslem’s role in pushing Whiteside.
“Every game,” Haslem said earlier this season, “I [say]: ‘Dominate this guy. The time is now. You're the next [big] thing! The organization is going to be in your hands. You're going to have to lead this team to a championship one day. Start now! Don’t take plays off! Don't take a backseat! Go out there and dominate the offensive glass. If you have a chance to post up, go up strong and finish.’”
Haslem said “I am constantly staying on him” because “I see the talent he's been blessed with. The size, athleticism, strength --- things I didn't have. If I can instill the things I have into a package like his, he could be the best big man in this league. I make sure I push him practice. In games, I don’t let him settle.”
Haslem might raise his voice “when I think he's not listening. It's more encouragement: ‘Let's go. Get your [expletive] together,’… It's never disrespectful.”
Teammates appreciate that. “For Hassan to have veteran guy like UD means a lot,” Dragic said. “He’s always there to make him better and to serve him. That's the thing all young players used to have. I had that in my career with Steve Nash. He was my mentor.”
Forward James Johnson said instead of teammates needing to get Whiteside to focus, “it's been him that's inspiring us. We [sometimes] come out a little flat and all of a sudden he does something ridiculous on the defensive or offensive end and that's what triggers us to get going.”
• According to Elias, Miami hadn’t hit a game-winning field goal at the buzzer in the regular season since Wade did it against the Bulls on March 9, 2009. The Heat’s streak of 650 games without a buzzer-beating win was the longest by any NBA team since the Rockets had a 676-game drought from 2005 to 2013. LeBron James hit a basket at the buzzer for the Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.