Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t mince words before Friday night’s game against the defending world champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
“If he does not dominate at the rim, in the paint, we don’t have a chance to win,” Spoelstra said of center Hassan Whiteside. “That’s what great players have to shoulder. That’s the responsibility of a great player. He’s really understanding now what that role actually means and what that feels like.
“There’s a guy on the other side in the other locker room that’s understood that for 14 years,” Spoelstra continued, obviously speaking of LeBron James before turning back to Whiteside. “That consistent approach with energy, with toughness, with God-given talent that he has, if that’s not 100 percent every single possession, it’s really doing a disservice to himself and also to us.”
The Heat’s $98 million center didn’t have the kind of night his coach was looking for and neither did Miami, falling to the Cavaliers in a 114-84 blowout at Quicken Loans Arena.
The 30-point margin was the Heat’s worst loss of the season, the 84 points matched a season low and the team’s 34.8 percent field-goal percentage was its worst shooting night of the season as Miami fell to 7-16.
The story, though, was Whiteside, who finished with only eight points on 4-of-10 shooting, 12 rebounds and zero blocks in 28 minutes. He was benched in the third quarter as Spoelstra said he was looking “to change the energy.”
“Just wanted some more energy, some more life on the glass, defending pick-and-rolls,” Spoelstra said of why he pulled Whiteside with 9:18 to go in the quarter and the Cavs (16-5) in the midst of an 11-4 run that extended their lead to 68-50. “That was a coaching decision.”
“It happens in this league,” Spoelstra responded when asked if he was disappointed he had to yank Whiteside. “This league is for competitors only. It’s great competitive matchups every single night. We have a lot of guys out, so that’s a big responsibility for him. He’s starting to understand what that actually means.”
Whiteside said he was surprised he was yanked from the game and that Spoelstra thought he wasn’t playing with enough energy.
“That’s what he thought, so that’s the decision he made,” Whiteside said. “On the defensive end I was out at the three-point line most of the game. The rebounds I could get I got. And the jump hooks I normally get I got. So it wasn’t really a matter of whether I was dominant.”
Does Whiteside believe he needs to be dominant for the Heat to win?
“I really don’t know what I’ve got to do man,” he answered. “I really don’t know. I’m not going to lie to y’all. I’m coming out here playing as hard as I can, putting up what I can. I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Whiteside, who took a tumble late in the first half with about a minute to go and tweaked his left knee, started the fourth and played the first seven minutes and 36 seconds before heading back to the bench for good.
Whiteside said his knee was bothering him, but he hopes to play Saturday against the Bulls in Chicago.
“I want to play [Saturday],” he said.
Derrick Williams led Miami with a season-high 17 points as the Heat’s three-man bench outscored Cleveland’s collection of seven bench players 39-29.
But the only Heat starters to reach double digits in scoring were point guard Goran Dragic, who finished with 15 points, three rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes, and Wayne Ellington, who scored 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting and missed seven three-pointers.
“If he’s not on top of his game, it’s tough,” Dragic responded when asked if the Heat needs its star center to be dominant to have a chance to win. “We need everybody. He’s our main piece. He’s our franchise player, and he needs to — we need him. Every time when he plays like that, our chances to win a game are smaller.”
Dragic said he wasn’t going to talk to Whiteside immediately about his performance but probably would before Saturday’s game.
“It’s tough to talk right now because the heads are still hot,” he said. “We need to cool down a little bit and then discuss that [Saturday].”
Asked if he thought Whiteside needed to play better despite tweaking his knee, Dragic responded: “I cannot say about somebody else what his body [can do]. He knows the best, if he can play or not. But I know for me, I have a high pain tolerance, so I can do it.
“It’s not an individual sport. We didn’t play well. So I’m disappointed in our performance, not against [Whiteside].”
▪ Prior to the game, Heat captain Udonis Haslem was excused for personal reasons.
His absence left the Heat with a league-minimum eight healthy players in uniform to face the Cavaliers.
Haslem, 36, was not with the Heat during the game. A team spokesman said the 14-year veteran was excused but “not because of a death in the family.”
“He’ll be back with us [in Chicago],” Spoelstra said. “I’ll let him answer.”