With 1:48 to go Friday against the Washington Wizards, the Miami Heat needed to avoid a meltdown. A miscommunication between Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside led to the forward throwing an entry pass awry as the Heat clung to a five-point lead. Erik Spoelstra had one last move to make.
The coach went to his bench and swapped Bam Adebayo in for his starting center, who was two rebounds away from another 20-and-20 game. Almost a month ago to the day, a fourth-quarter benching led to Whiteside leaving the Miami’s sideline with less than a minute to go, later claiming he was just going to the bathroom. On Friday, Whiteside’s benching ended with a hug from his coach.
“They sped it up and went even quicker at the end. As a competitor, he wanted to be in there, but we shared a hug afterward,” Spoelstra said at his postgame press conference following the Heat’s 115-1099 win in Miami. “He’s just starting to get the whole deal now, which is good for us.”
Despite playing just 3:37 in the fourth quarter, Whiteside finished as the Heat’s leading scorer and rebounder, with 21 points and 18 rebounds to go along with two blocks.
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With 12 wins in 17 games entering Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks, Miami (19-18) has found a formula for success hinging upon defense and depth. The Heat’s bench has been one of the most productive in the league since the start of December, which, inevitably, has meant inconsistent minutes up and down the roster. Wayne Ellington hasn’t played in five straight game and six of seven. Fellow swingman Dion Waiters, who played 11 minutes in his season debut Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, didn’t touch the floor Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
While Whiteside has started whenever he’s been healthy, he’s felt the effects of Miami’s myriad options in the final quarter of games. At one point from mid-November to mid-December, Whiteside didn’t play a single fourth-quarter minute in seven of eight games. Even now, he hasn’t played more than five minutes in the fourth quarter of four straight games, including two games he didn’t play at all in the final period.
“It definitely makes it tough, especially when guys want to perform well and guys want to put them numbers up,” Whiteside said in the locker room after the win. “You know, we’ve got things like All-Star games and things like that, that will motivate guys to individually perform higher.”
He then paused for just a moment. Right now, he said he’s fine with it.
“Our team’s not built like that,” Whiteside continued. “You don’t know who’s going to do it that night. We don’t have two guys that take 25 shots. Some teams got that and those are normally guys that, I mean, if one of them guys get hurt, unfortunately that team sucks.”
Spoelstra’s postgame hug came largely because of Whiteside did right after tipoff. The center came out strong, scoring six of the Heat’s first nine points and propelling Miami out to an early 13-4 lead. By halftime, Whiteside was well on his way to another massive stat line with 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Heat has won games this year because of its rebounding. It’s built big leads by riding Whiteside early, then hung on by letting Adebayo close out games at center. Miami has found a distinct role in which Whiteside can thrive: Let the 7-footer be active around both baskets.
“I’m going to try to just do that every game, just come in here and be aggressive,” Whiteside said. “I think I need to be more aggressive sometimes like I was tonight and just keep hitting that glass.”
When at its best, the Heat is a team full of complementary players. In the last 11 games before Sunday against the Hawks (11-27) in Atlanta, the Heat has only had its high scorer for the game finish with more than 24 points once, yet no one is at least outwardly complaining about their role.
In those same 11 games, Miami is 8-3.
“Winning heals everything,” Whiteside said. “Everything tastes better. You sleep better. Everything’s better.”