There’s one big positive the Miami Heat can take from its preseason opener, literally and figuratively.
After a five-month offseason that included plenty of talk about a new and improved Whiteside, the Heat’s starting center put all of the words into action in Sunday’s 104-100 loss to the Spurs at AT&T Center. It’s important to remember it’s just one preseason game, but the 7-footer was the best player on the court with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 23 minutes.
“Those were meaningful stats,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can feel it. You can see it. He’s in great shape, so he’s able to sustain a high level of activity and play and multiple efforts.”
Whether it was contesting shots on the defensive end or just holding his screens a second longer, Whiteside’s strong performance extended beyond the box score. The Heat simply looked like a better team with him on the court.
“He was doing it on both ends of the court,” Spoelstra said. “He was defending and protecting the rim for us, defending their bigs one-on-one,and then the shot goes up, he’s cleaning it all up. … I think even on the offensive end, he was active and doing his job, setting great screens. A couple of illegal screens? That’s fine, he’s doing it with purpose and intention to get guys open and he was a big-time presence in the paint.”
Becoming a better screener is one of Whiteside’s goals this season.
“I really want to make an emphasis on me being a harder screener, a better screener, holding screens, getting Goran [Dragic] and Tyler [Johnson] and them guys in the paint more,” said Whiteside, who is entering the third season of his four-year, $98 million contract. “That’s something I really want to emphasize and I think I’m doing a really good job in just sealing.”
Whiteside’s 20-point performance proves he was active on offense, but he was also dominant defensively.
The Heat posted a quality defensive rating of 82.9 (points allowed per 100 possessions) with Whiteside on the court. To put that number into perspective, Miami finished with a 103.8 defensive rating with Whiteside last season.
“That’s the one thing you control every night is your activity level,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of Whiteside. “Shots aren’t going to always go in, you’re not going to always get looks. But if he can play with that kind of activity level, that same energy and love for the game, he’s going to have a very good season for us.
“That’s the one thing that we’re going to try to continue to push him to do for our team, bring that activity and bring that energy on both ends of the floor.”
This version of Whiteside wasn’t around much last season. After a dominating in the opener with 26 points and 22 rebounds last year, injuries derailed his season as he went on to miss 28 regular-season games due to multiple issues — 18 games because of two separate bone bruises on his left knee, nine games with a hip injury and one game because of a stomach illness.
Whiteside averaged 14 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season. Those numbers were down from the year before, when he averaged 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in part because of injury issues and decreased playing time.
This season, Whiteside is looking to take a step forward.
“This guy has gotten better every year in our program,” Spoelstra said. “And this is just something he has to deal with, in terms of the narrative that’s out there, to be able to develop some mental resiliency to play through it, because so much of it is misinformed. But I think that builds character. He’s had a great summer, a great response to a lot of the narrative that’s out there and he’s on a good track right now, just has to keep it going that way.”