The questions have lingered all season, the questions about whether Hassan Whiteside is too atypical a Miami Heat player, in terms of temperament and priorities, to remain a Miami Heat player for all that much longer.
But what’s becoming increasingly apparent, and was again in Wednesday’s 115-103 Heat win in Game 2, is that Whiteside is actually the most representative player of this particular Heat team.
He embodies it entirely: still exasperating at times, but absolutely extraordinary at others. And because it’s impossible to measure the height of his ceiling, the roof for the Heat keeps getting raised.
Wednesday, Whiteside made all eight of his field goals and his only free throw — for 17 points — for the first perfect offensive night of his NBA career when he’d had at least eight attempts, after he was 7-for-7 in a loss to Washington in December. And, for Heat postseason history, he bested even his massive new mentor, Shaquille O’Neal, who made 12-of-14 shots (85.7 percent) in the Game 6 closeout of Detroit in 2006.
“I feel like everything I threw up at the rim went in,” Whiteside said. “I had maybe one or two dunks, but outside of that, it was jump hooks. It felt like everything was going in for me.”
And so the Heat go north, to Whiteside’s hometown of Charlotte, with a 2-0 lead and a starting center who has made 17-of-19 shots overall. He made some even when the pass wasn’t perfect, showing soft hands, nimble feet and plenty of patience to gather and finish.
“I’m a different player when I can get my balance,” Whiteside said. “And I know that now. When I get my balance, I just know I’m a different player. I gather myself and take my time down there. Like [assistant coach] Juwan [Howard] would say, ‘You’ve got good touch.’ I just tried to stay on balance, and let my touch take care of the rest.”
This performance was especially encouraging because it came after he, and thus the Heat, was thrown off balance on Monday. The team all had been dealt another potential distraction: Whiteside’s extreme disappointment about finishing third in the media’s Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Even as teammates tried to get him to focus on the upside — there were more than 450 eligible candidates — Whiteside was so downcast that there was concern inside the organization that it would sidetrack him in this series.
That he might mope. Or, worse, that he might try to show off to the voters who spurned him, to the detriment of the team — seeking even more swats than usual and leaving the backside of the defense unprotected.
“He can be the defensive player of the playoffs for us,” Erik Spoelstra said after Tuesday’s practice, trying to turn the page.
Whiteside wasn’t necessarily that on Wednesday, not when Hornets coach Steve Clifford — as he’d hinted he would prior to the series — aimed to exploit the one-on-one matchup of low-post, low-to-the-floor technician Al Jefferson against Whiteside time after time in the second quarter. At one point, Jefferson scored seven of the Hornets’ eight baskets.
But the Heat won the quarter anyway, in part because Whiteside kept his composure and kept countering on the other end.
“Just don’t get carried away,” Whiteside said. “They saw I had two fouls. They tried to get me a third foul. Just don’t get carried away. We kept it one-on-one. We didn’t want to bring in a double team.”
In the third quarter, he played more aggressively on defense and was more of a deterrent.
And Spoelstra had a message: “Welcome to the playoffs.”
“He’s gonna make some tough shots,” Whiteside said of Jefferson. “He’s a great player. You know he’s going to use his right hand, but he’s really hard to stop. He’s a really great player, that’s why he’s been in this league for so long.”
Whiteside hasn’t been in it nearly as long.
But he’s making an impression, on a grander stage.
“I feel like this gives a chance for the world just to watch a little more,” Whiteside said. “Rather than just the Miami-based fans on [Sun Sports].”
The world has watched him make shot after shot.
Just like he does on his favorite video game.
“Nah, nah, nah,” Whiteside said. “No way it’s happening on [NBA 2K]. I can’t make a layup on there.”
And now, from his new home to his old one, after a perfect night.
“It’s just another chapter in my story.”