Whiteside: “I want to be in the Defensive player of the year conversation’’
Josh Richardson was incredulous, but not necessarily surprised to hear the actual numbers to go along with Hassan Whiteside’s performance in the Miami Heat’s 110-102 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday. For the second straight game, Whiteside pulled in 20 rebounds and hearing this number once again caused Richardson’s eyes to widen and seek confirmation from no one in particular.
“He had 20 rebounds again?” Richardson said in the Heat’s locker room after the game Friday. “He’s locked in right now. He’s bringing a lot of good things to the table.”
Even before this four-game homestand began Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs in Miami, Whiteside sat behind only Detroit Pistons post player Andre Drummond on the NBA leaderboards for rebounds per game and the center’s first two games back at AmericanAirlines Arena have caused his numbers to balloon. For the first time in his career, Whiteside recorded 20 rebounds in back-to-back games, lifting his average per game to 15.7 entering a Saturday home game against the Washington Wizards, up from 14.6 per game when the homestand began. Early on, he’s on pace to break his own single-season franchise record of 14.1 rebounds per game, set during the 2016-17 season.
Whiteside’s performance Wednesday was always going to be a tough act to follow. The 29-year-old was the best version of himself, finishing with 29 points, 20 rebounds and nine blocks to come up just shy of his fifth career triple-double. His outing Friday, however, was another of his best this year. Whiteside only scored 11 points, but he added 20 rebounds and five blocks while shooting 5 of 8 from the floor.
These two 20-rebound games go along with another monster outing he had less than two weeks ago. In a late-October loss the Sacramento Kings, Whiteside pulled down 24 rebounds, coming up just one short of matching a career high.
“I’m struggling out there to get like four or five rebounds because he’s just gobbling everything up,” post player Kelly Olynyk said in the locker room after the game Friday. “You have good rebounders who rebound and make an extra effort, then you have great rebounders that rebound and rebound outside of their area. That’s what he’s getting to, is an elite-level rebounder. He’s rebounding basically a whole 15-foot circle around the basket. Anything that lands within 15 feet of the basket is his rebound.
“It’s pretty unique, honestly. I haven’t played with a lot of guys who just go and get 20 rebounds like it’s eating Cap’n Crunch in the morning.”
The 20-rebound threshold is still unusual — Whiteside now has 18 in his career, three away from matching Rony Seikaly’s franchise record for 20-rebound games — but big performances are now the expectation for the Heat. In addition to the rebound numbers, Whiteside also leads the league in blocks per game and is averaging more than 14 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
Before Miami’s offense came undone in the final minutes against the Pacers, Whiteside made some potential game-changing plays on both ends of the floor. He opened the fourth-quarter scoring by flushing home an alley-oop from guard Tyler Johnson to cut Indiana’s lead to 84-82. With the Heat holding a three-point lead at the midpoint of the final quarter, Whiteside extended a Miami possession by fighting through three Pacers (8-5) to grab an offensive rebound and draw a foul, although the 7-footer missed both ensuing free throws.
On the other end, Whiteside helped the Heat (5-6) maintain its 100-98 lead heading into the final two minutes when he got switched on to Victor Oladipo and blocked the All-Star guard’s step-back jumper at the free-throw line.
Whiteside has openly pined for both Defensive Player of the Year consideration and a spot in the 2019 All-Star Game. Plays like the ones he made in the fourth quarter Friday will help his case.
“You guys and the fans haven’t been able to see what he’s done behind the scenes, but he really prepared for this season this summer,” coach Erik Spoelstra said at his postgame press conference Friday. “At preseason practices, he had quite a few performances like this, where we were the only ones that saw it. You keep on bringing that type of energy and focus every day, then that just becomes who you are.”
Whiteside quickly quelled any worry of a letdown after his Wednesday eruption. He came just one block shy of a triple-double Wednesday and needed only 67 seconds Friday to get his first, swatting away a layup by wing Bojan Bogdanovic in the first two minutes. Fifty-three seconds later, he turned away another layup from Oladipo.
Right away, Whiteside’s teammates could see he was ready to pick up where he left off. Now everyone wants to make sure he can keep it going.
“You can tell with his body language,” Richardson said. “We can tell when he’s locked in and when he’s kind of starting slow, so we try to keep him locked.”