Life without Hassan Whiteside around to patrol the paint hasn’t been fun for the Miami Heat this season and Saturday night when the Boston Celtics visit AmericanAirlines Arena the NBA’s 2015-16 leading shotblocker will be relegated to spectator yet again.
Though he was able to go through conditioning drills Friday and is “starting to feel better” according to coach Erik Spoelstra, Whiteside will miss his fourth consecutive game with a bone bruise in his left knee, leaving the Heat once again trying to make up defensively for the absence of its 7-foot eraser.
The good news for Miami (2-2)? The Kyrie Irving-led Celtics (3-2) are not the post-you-up and-beat-you-up with LaMarcus Aldridge Spurs.
Boston enters averaging 37.6 points in the paint this season (27th in the league). That’s somewhat of a reprieve for a Heat team ranked 26th in allowing points in the paint (50 per game) and uncharacteristically struggling on the defensive end to start the season.
“We have to be better as a collective group, no question about it,” Spoelstra said of the Heat, which ranks 23rd in defensive rating (107.7) and 28th in opponent field goal percentage (48.5 percent).
“Our overall commitment to the doing the tough things, the small things that are needed defensively to defend in this modern NBA, we have to be so much more committed to that. Our guys understand that with or without Hassan. Even when we had him in game 1 [at Orlando] we weren’t defending how we want to.
“We pride ourselves on being a physical defensive team. That’s having the front end of your defense physical with a presence and finishing our defense with physical rebounds and loose balls and we have not done that to our standards.”
Boston, which posted the best record in the Eastern Conference last season and then underwent a major facelift this summer when it traded leading scorer Isaiah Thomas and forward Jae Crowder to Cleveland for the All-Star Irving, has swept the Heat in the regular season each of the last two seasons.
Miami’s last win against the Celtics came eight games ago in Boston on March 25, 2015. Kelly Olynyk and Jordan Mickey, two of the Heat’s new additions in the frontcourt, wore Celtics green back then. Saturday’s game is a chance for both to stick it to the team that let them walk this summer.
Yet, both are not making facing their old team a big deal – at least publicly.
“It’s part of the business, guys come, guys go, but it’s still the team that drafted me and the team I played for for two years,” said Mickey of Boston, which returned only four players (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown) from last year’s roster. “Nothing weird for me. It’s part of the game.”
Said Olynyk who spent four years in Boston: “It’s a different squad, but it's still the Celtics. They've still got [coach Brad] Stevens at the top, the same people up there. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a fun game.”
It probably will only be fun if the Heat gets it act together on defense.
Olynyk, who leads the NBA in charges drawn with five, has tried to do his part mostly with the second unit.
After starting in the opener in Orlando, the 7-footer has come off the bench each of the last three games and has done a good job facilitating, rebounding and scoring. The lineup featuring Olynyk, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow has had more minutes together (28) than any other Spoelstra has put on the floor and it’s one of the better ones in terms of plus/minus (+6).
“Our chemistry with the second unit is very seamless and it’s not by accident,” Spoelstra said of Olynyk, who is averaging 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range in 22.3 minutes per game. “K.O. is a guy that guys like playing with. He likes making the game easier for his teammates. He’s highly skilled. And he can shoot the ball, space the floor, so that’ll only continue to get better.”
Mickey (6-8, 235) made a pair of spot starts for Whiteside in Miami’s wins over Indiana and Atlanta in the past week. But he was replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Bam Adebayo in Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs. Mickey, who is averaging 5.0 points, 6.0 rebounds in 14.1 minutes, didn’t play a single minute against the Spurs.
“It has nothing to do with how Jordan was playing,” Spoelstra said. “It might continue to be a game-to-game thing, based on who we’re playing. I wanted to try to try to leverage a little bit more speed and athleticism with Bam to start [against the Spurs]. I liked Bam’s minutes. But I’ve also liked Jordan's minutes.”
The Heat ultimately would just like to figure out a way to get another win Saturday without Whiteside.
“He’s definitely a tough person to emulate,” Olynyk said. “You can’t really emulate his size and length under the basket, rolling [to the basket] and stuff. We’ve just got to play together. We’ve got to be on a string defensively, helping each other, communicating and talking. We’ve just got to play as a team. And it's got to be a team effort on every single play – stop the ball, rebound the ball and then translate that into the offensive end.”