The Miami Heat made keeping Hassan Whiteside its No. 1 priority this summer, meeting him right after midnight when free agency began and signing him to a four-year, $98 million deal — a big raise for a guy who played for the Sichuan Blue Whales and Rio Grande Vipers in 2013.
For the first 11 minutes of the preseason Tuesday night, Whiteside gave Heat fans reason to believe he might be ready to handle a lot more responsibility with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh no longer around, piecing together a 16-point, seven-rebound and two-block barrage before coach Erik Spoelstra finally told him to come sit on the bench.
The best part about Whiteside’s start for Spoelstra? The fact the 7-foot center “was was going 94 feet virtually every possession.”
“I felt good, you know,” Whiteside said of his statistical explosion to start the season. “The guys were really sharing the ball and we had good chemistry out there. Dion Waiters made some great plays. Justise [Winslow] made some great plays. Goran [Dragic] made some great plays and you know I just finished it.”
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The league’s leading shot blocker finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes, one of the many encouraging signs in the Heat’s 106-95 preseason opening victory over the John Wall-less Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center.
There were quite a few feel good reasons for the Heat:
▪ Of the team’s 43 baskets, 27 came on assists in an often wide open attack led by Dragic that pushed the pace and created plenty of space for open three-pointers. The Heat not only scored 54 points in the paint, but 19 points on fast breaks and finished 11-of-23 from three-point range.
“For the most part those threes were a byproduct of an extra pass or hitting the open man. It helps having guys that can knock down those shots as well. I liked those possessions. It led to the better shot. And guys enjoy that. It becomes something now you’re looking to make the extra pass to try get the next guy a wide open shot rather than taking something that might be an average shot.”
▪ Winslow, who dropped about five pounds over the summer as he focused on getting faster in the open court, looked more fleet of foot and ready to handle a starting role. He provided Whiteside with the first bucket of the game on a lob for a dunk. Moments later, he drained his first three-point attempt from the corner with his brand new, smoother looking jump shot. Later, in transition, he sped past the defense for a thunderous dunk. Winslow finished with 12 points, two rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes.
“I don’t want to limit his progress to that,” Spoelstra said of Winslow’s jumper. “That doesn’t define what kind of player he is. I hope teams continue to leave him open out there. I know the hours he’s put in on it. But it’s all those other plays. He’ll find a way to impact winning and that’s on both sides of the floor.”
▪ The newcomers looked pretty good, too.
Dion Waiters was the first player off the bench in each half for the Heat. He finished with 12 points and eight assists in 22 minutes, showing the kind of playmaking Spoelstra wants to see more of.
Luke Babbitt, who started alongside Tyler Johnson, Dragic, Winslow and Whiteside, was 4-of-5 from three-point range and finished with 14 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. Wayne Ellington, the sixth player off the bench Monday, was 2-of-3 beyond the arc.
Derrick Williams and James Johnson brought energy off the bench and helped extend the Heat’s lead to as much as 18 points in the second quarter.
Johnson got most of the run with the starting lineup to start the second half and finished with seven points, seven rebounds and a steal in 19 minutes. Williams missed six of his eight shots, but finished with seven points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 23 minutes.
▪ Nearly as important, the Heat held the Wizards to under 40 percent shooting (39.3 percent) and actually stretched the lead out to as much as 26 points in the second half.
“Obviously its preseason and Wall didn’t play, their leader, their captain. But it was good for us to just play someone different and try to go out there and execute what we’ve been practicing against a different team,” Winslow said.
“I think people saw our versatility. We’ve got attackers. We’ve got guys that can shoot. We’ve got guys that can do both. The versatility is endless. It was great. I was out there handling the ball. Goran was setting screens. It was just a very versatile group. I think that’s going to make us hard to beat. We had guys that can get the rebound. James can get the rebound and push it off the break. D-Will can. I can. When you’ve got to guard against that it’s tough because then the guards can get to space and Hassan can run up right down the middle.”