Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 95-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs (6-4) on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
1. Hassan Whiteside’s knee looks fine. After missing Monday’s win over the Pistons with a right knee injury, Whiteside returned Wednesday and was dominant from the start for the Heat (5-5). Miami’s starting center finished the first quarter with a stat line of 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists and five blocks. He ended the first half with 18 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and eight blocks. Those eight blocks set a new team record for most blocks in a half.
At the end of the game, Whiteside had accumulated 29 points, 20 rebounds, two assists and nine blocks in 32 minutes, falling just a block short of recording his fifth-career triple-double. He’s the sixth different player to record at least 29 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocks in a game since blocks started being tracked in the 1973-74 season, joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo and Elmore Smith.
“The ball will find energy and he was a bundle of energy on both ends,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Whiteside. “That’s the karma of the game. We ran probably less than a handful of direct plays to him, and he was making guys see him with his force. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Spurs also shot just 2 of 13 within 10 feet of the basket when defended by Whiteside.
Obviously, Whiteside can’t do this every night. But it’s not those stats the Heat is asking him to replicate consistently. It’s the activity level on both ends for a complete game that Miami has been hoping to see more regularly.
“It would have been pretty cool for him to get that triple-double. But the context of his winning plays had nothing to do with the stat line,” Spoelstra said. “When he brings that kind of intensity, competitiveness, the defensive efforts and even the attention to details on the other end, we’re clearly a different team.
“He’s had a lot of really good days this year. And it’s good to see it come out because we’ve seen this in practice quite a few times, and he’s had some really good games and it’s helped us. But this game really has been coming.”
Still, Whiteside wanted that triple-double. After the game, a reporter asked him if he wanted the game reviewed to make sure one of his blocks wasn’t missed.
“We can definitely review it,” Whiteside said. “I would love to review it, so whoever got to review it, review it because I definitely want to make that statement, because I want to be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Y’all gave it to a shot-blocker [Utah’s Rudy Gobert] last year, so we respect the shot-blocker again.”
Either way, it’s a good sign that Whiteside is feeling healthy enough to put together a performance like this after missing 18 games because of two separate bone bruises on his left knee last season. His latest knee injury only kept him out one game, and he was as dominant as ever in his return Wednesday.
And the Heat continues to be a better team with Whiteside on the court. Miami has outscored opponents by 20 points with the 7-footer playing this season. That’s a big improvement from last season, when the Heat was outscored by 79 points with its highest-paid player on the court. Whiteside is now averaging 14.2 points, 15.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in nine games this season.
These are all positives for Whiteside, who was a non-factor just a few months ago in the Heat’s first-round playoff series against the 76ers.
2. Just like that, the Heat’s defense is fixed. After allowing an average of 123.7 points on 51.9 percent shooting over a three-game stretch last week — all losses — Miami has turned in two consecutive quality defensive performances. The latest came Wednesday, when the Heat held the Spurs to a season-low 88 points on 33 percent shooting. The last time San Antonio shot 33 percent or worse in a game was on April 23, 2009, when it shot 32.1 percent in a loss to the Mavericks.
Whiteside’s elite rim protection played a big part in the Heat’s defensive success Wednesday (Spurs shot just 12 of 32 from within the paint), but so did Rodney McGruder’s individual defense on Spurs All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan. McGruder defended DeRozan for most of the game, helping to limit him to 18 points on 6 of 15 shooting. DeRozan entered averaging 27.3 points on 51.6 percent shooting this season.
The Heat’s defense has now allowed 101.5 points on 37.2 percent shooting over its current two-game winning streak. It looks like that three-game stretch full of defensive struggles was just a slump.
“It has to be that way for us. That’s the pathway for success for us,” Spoelstra said of winning with defense. “When we get a little bit confused about that, we pay the price. The last two games, everybody’s earned their ice and some of the games haven’t necessarily been pretty. What did we shoot? Less than 40 percent tonight. But the identity of defending, making tough plays, rebounding, that’s how this team can succeed.”
3. The Heat finally played Wayne Ellington for extended minutes, and he picked up right where he left off last season. Ellington started in place of the injured Goran Dragic (right knee), and he made a strong case for a consistent spot in Miami’s rotation. The sharpshooter finished with 20 points and shot 6 of 10 from three-point range in 37 minutes Wednesday, helping to make up for the absences of Dwyane Wade (personal reasons) and Dragic.
It’s been a strange start to the year for Ellington, who missed the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season with left ankle soreness. Then Ellington was a DNP-coach’s decision for three consecutive games before finally making his season debut in Saturday’s loss to the Hawks. Entering Wednesday’s game, he had logged just 12 minutes of action in two games this season.
But Ellington’s performance against the Spurs is a reminder of his unique skill set that was essential to the Heat’s success last season. He finished with the second-best plus-minus on the team (plus-127), while setting a career-high and team record with 227 made 3-pointers in 2017-18. There’s a reason Miami’s front office decided to go into the luxury tax to keep Ellington in free agency this past summer, and it’s not to keep him on the bench.
“I have great empathy for Wayne because he was really disappointed about being out early on,” Spoelstra said. “He put so much time into this summer and into his work. He’s an absolute pro, and then for him to not be able to have a training camp with the rest of the guys. And because we have a deep team, he had to wait. But he understands how long a season is and how to prepare regardless of what’s going on, and it was a matter of time before he was going to get his opportunity. And he was ready for it.
4. This was not a good night for Josh Richardson, but there was one positive takeaway. He kept shooting, even after missing 12 of his first 13 shots Wednesday. In the end, he finished with 14 points on 6 of 22 shooting.
“Stay aggressive and make plays, and how else can you affect the game,” Spoelstra said. “He was a little frustrated, he missed that one layup and stayed back in transition. It’s those plays after that, after things aren’t going your way. He made some plays after that and got himself going with some defensive plays, and then went from there.”
That’s the mentality Richardson has to have if he’s going to be Miami’s offensive leader. He’s not going to be efficient every night, especially in his first season in this expanded role. But the Heat needs him to stay aggressive and keep looking for his shot, even when the shots aren’t going in because the law of averages says they will at some point. Richardson did that against the Spurs.
5. The Heat finally beat the Spurs. Wednesday’s win snapped Miami’s 11-game losing skid to San Antonio, a streak that began in Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals. The Heat’s last regular-season win over the Spurs was on Jan. 26, 2014. That means players like Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Bam Adebayo and Josh Richardson had never earned a win over San Antonio.
“We finally cracked the code,” Whiteside said with a smile. “I feel great. We finally got to beat [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] at a game.”