Hassan Whiteside knew he would be getting the ball in his hands a lot more this season and it would mean a lot more attention from opposing defense — the kind he’s received the past two games when the Knicks and Hawks have packed the paint, waiting for him with an array of double- and triple-teams.
It’s the kind of challenge Whiteside knows to expect more and more with the Heat short-handed by injuries and needing him and point guard Goran Dragic to carry the scoring load.
It’s why — if you’ve been paying close attention — he’s begun unleashing new parts of his offensive game … like the trio of turnaround fadeaway jumpers he swished against the Knicks, and the different spin moves to the basket he’s been using over the past couple weeks to create space that often isn’t there.
“I've always had it,” said Whiteside, who is averaging 17.6 points per game, of his expanding offensive arsenal. “I feel like every game I kind of surprise people because they ain’t seen it. But it’s the kind of things I can do. I’ve just to have the ball to do it.”
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Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks was a struggle. Whiteside finished 4 of 12 with eight points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes. He took just two shots outside the paint, missing an 18-foot step-back jumper and making a 19-footer.
But against the Knicks, when he scored 23 points on 10-of-20 shooting, Whiteside turned to his jumper seven times and made four of them. It’s an example of the nights he takes what the defense gives him and doesn’t try as hard to force action in the paint, which often leads to foul trouble. That’s what happened against the Hawks in the second half.
“I really couldn’t get to the spots I normally could so I had to score other ways,” Whiteside said of his performance against the Knicks. “I had to shoot turnaround jumpers a little more, which I don’t mind shooting.”
Although Whiteside’s overall field goal percentage is down from 60.6 percent a season ago (third in the NBA) to 54.9 percent (10th in the league), so too are the dunks and easy scores off lobs he received last season when Dwyane Wade was around to feed him.
Whiteside ranks fourth in the league in points in the paint (13) and leads the league in post (8.7) and paint (7.2) touches per game. The proof he’s having to work harder for his baskets? Last season, 66 percent of his field goals were assisted; this season only 54 percent are.
Still, this newer version of Whiteside is “night and day” better than even only a month ago, according to coach Erik Spoesltra. And Spoelstra only sees further improvement ahead.
“It takes a team concept to be able to … get him in the right spots where he can be efficient,” Spoelstra said.
“We don’t want to just throw him the ball and let him ice certain matchups. That’s not necessarily what we’re looking for. We’re looking for five-man actions, and he’s a great option in the middle or as a secondary post-up option for us, particularly as teams are adjusting how they’re playing our pick-and-roll. He’s not getting as many lobs as he was getting in the previous years, but that will continue to grow.”
Spoelstra said an area in which Whiteside has improved considerably is “understanding the responsibility of impacting winning.”
Often that can be playing the role of decoy so his teammates can get open looks on the perimeter like they did Wednesday against the Hawks when Tyler Johnson posted a career-high 27 points.
Or it could mean getting out of the way for James Johnson and others to attack the rim like they did in the Heat’s last win at Utah.
“It’s on all levels,” Spoelstra said. “So even when you put up a 20-and-15 game and it’s not enough, well then, what is required? More is required on all levels. That’s the details and leadership in meetings, practices, shootarounds and consistent approach during games.”
For his part, Whiteside said he’s still having fun with his teammates despite the losing and Miami’s struggles this season.
“These are good guys,” he said of his teammates.
“I’m still happy playing basketball. I’m not going to let the record affect that. I’m going to still come out here and try to stay positive and stay motivated, help us head in the right direction.”
Friday: Heat at Cavaliers
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 59-42.
Scouting report: Already without six players because of injury, the Heat could be without guard Rodney McGruder (sprained left ankle), who is listed as questionable. … The Cavaliers are 9-2 at Quicken Loans Arena, where they are averaging 115.3 points. That includes five contests with 120 points or more. … The Cavs, a 13-point favorite, are 3-0 versus Miami at home since LeBron James returned to Cleveland, winning by an average of 18.7 points over that stretch.