Hassan Whiteside still isn’t feeling his best. The bone bruise in his left knee, which caused him to miss two weeks of action and five games, is still bothering him, and Friday night at Utah he asked out of the game less than six minutes in because the altitude in Salt Lake City was affecting him.
But the Heat’s $98 million center wasn’t about to make excuses. He wasn’t going to let a repeat of what happened Monday night at Golden State — when coach Erik Spoelstra benched him in the second half — happen again.
So even on a night when the Jazz were double- and triple-teaming him when the ball found its way into the paint, Whiteside “put his fingerprints on the game” the best way he could, rebounding his rear-end off and anchoring Miami’s defense on a night the Heat set team records for defending the Jazz.
“He was dominant, just dominant. Just changed the game for us, man,” said Dion Waiters, who changed the game for the Heat by leading a 13-0 run with 2 minutes and 45 seconds left to play. “It was hard for them to get lobs. He had guys coming down there really hesitant about coming down there, and when they got down there they couldn’t make a decision. And when they made the decision, it was the wrong decision because he’s playing in between.
“With a guy like that who’s so talented and so athletic, you have to really have your mind made up and make sure you know what you’re going to do. And I think a lot of times, he had them guys on their heels a lot — like do I pass, do I score? He was able to get a lot of deflections for us when they were trying to go up top to [Rudy] Gobert. I think it was these types of matchups you look forward to anyway. Two primary bigs in the league, dominant forces on the defensive end. It’s about who wants it more, and I think he did that for us and we were able to win that game.”
The Jazz finished 1 of 18 from the field in the third quarter, a quarter in which Whiteside played all 12 minutes, grabbed 11 rebounds, had two steals and a block and the Heat erased a 12-point halftime deficit. Utah then went 3-of-15 in the fourth quarter, combining to go 4 for 33 in the second half. Before Friday, no Heat team — even Pat Riley’s defensive-minded teams led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mounring — had ever held an opponent under six field goals in a half.
So, in the end, it didn’t matter that Whiteside scored only eight points and was 3 of 7 shooting. His fingerprints were all over this Heat win.
“Hassan’s eight-point game is one of the most inspiring games he’s had in a Miami Heat uniform, really anchored our defense,” Spoelstra said. “Guys were making inspiring plays because of what they saw him doing. It was great to see. It’s not one of those box scores from a points standpoint that will jump off the page, but his impact was incredible.
“He just couldn’t get into a rhythm on either end of the floor [in the first half]. And at halftime, he just kept saying, ‘Let’s make a run this third quarter. We’ve got to do it right when the clock starts.’ And he did, and everybody just followed.”
Whiteside doesn’t always answer the bell with effort. Monday’s loss to the Warriors was a prime example. But the Heat (6-6) can live with a one or two off-nights from Whiteside if he shows up and responds after that.
“I got to affect the game anyway I can,” Whiteside said. “It’s crazy because there’s haters out there who say I don’t know how to play winning basketball or make winning plays. We track winning plays every day, and I’m normally top three. So that tells you there are a lot of times I’m making winning plays out there. If I can affect the game in any way possible, I’m going to affect it.”
Whiteside has plenty of haters.
Rudy Gobert, a second-team All-NBA center, has poked fun at Whiteside on social media in the past and thoroughly enjoyed his block of Whiteside late in Friday’s game (only to see Waiters hit the game-tying three seconds later). Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid took aim at Whiteside this preseason. But even with Whiteside saying it was all in good fun, it’s easy to see he’s not universally beloved even by his fellow big men in the league.
What Friday night’s effort over the final two quarters showed us yet again, though, is how valuable he can be when he is driven and fully engaged. Much like in last Sunday’s thrilling win over the Clippers, he was calling out defensive plays and coverages, being the kind of vocal leader this Heat team needs.
It’s no coincidence that the Heat ranked 17th in the league in defensive rating (104.9) through its first seven games of the season, when Whiteside only suited up twice. Since the road trip started in Denver on Nov. 3, with Whiteside back in the mix, the Heat has posted the fourth-best defensive rating in the league (97.1), bringing its defensive rating up to eighth best in the league (101.7).
“That’s what we want to get back to,” Whiteside said Wednesday of making the Heat a top defense. “I want to be the driving force for that.”
On Friday, he certainly was.