Miami Heat

Miami Heat’s young trio making mark with defense

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, center, looks for an opening past Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, and forward Justise Winslow during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Miami. Leonard scored 23 points as the Spurs defeated the Heat 119-101.
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, center, looks for an opening past Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, and forward Justise Winslow during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Miami. Leonard scored 23 points as the Spurs defeated the Heat 119-101. AP

Hassan Whiteside likes to tell everyone that he’s “different.”

But in one key area, the Heat’s troika of 19-to-26 year-old rotation players — Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson — is vastly different from many other evolving young players.

“We have a young group of guys that like to play defense,” Whiteside said. “That’s rare nowadays, to find guys that love playing defense. Most people are celebrated for scoring. When you find guys that like to play defense, you get wins.”

It has taken Joe Johnson less than a week with the Heat to appreciate the trio’s defensive acumen.

“It’s great they’re defensive minded,” he said. “You don’t see that in young ages. They know and understand to be on the court, they’ve got to make an impact somewhere.”

Consider:

▪ Not only is Whiteside, 26, leading the NBA in blocked shots at 3.89 per game, but he’s obliterating the competition.

This is pretty remarkable: The player who ranks second in the league in blocks, Utah’s Rudy Gobert (at 2.46), is closer in blocks to the player who rank 37th on the list (Amir Johnson) than he is to Whiteside.

For historical context, Whiteside’s blocked shots average would be the highest in the NBA since Alonzo Mourning averaged 3.91 for the Heat in 1998-99, when a lockout shortened the season to 50 games.

Over a full 82-game season, Whiteside’s average would be the highest since Dikembe Mutombo swatted away 4.49 per game in 1995-96.

In the 42 seasons since the NBA first started tracking blocks as a statistic, the league leader has averaged at least 4.0 blocks per game on 13 occasions. But all 13 happened over the first 23 seasons (1973-1996).

Mark Eaton did it three times, and Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Manute Bol achieved it twice apiece.

Nobody has averaged 4.0 per game in 19 seasons since, but Whiteside is making a run at that. For perspective, last season’s leader in blocks per game, Anthony Davis, averaged 2.94, with Whiteside finishing at 2.6.

Whiteside, 26, said averaging four blocks would be meaningful and help in his efforts to win Defensive Player of the Year. “I wish I could average five,” he said.

From a rebounding standpoint, Whiteside ranks fourth at 11.7 per game, behind only Andre Drummond, Jordan and Dwight Howard.

▪ Winslow, meanwhile, is holding the player he’s guarding to 42.7 percent shooting, more than one point below what that player shoots overall.

There are 39 players from the 2015 draft class who have appeared in an NBA game this season, and Winslow’s 42.7 is 10th best.

But among rookies who have played in at least 30 games; only the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant and Chicago’s Bobby Portis are holding opponents to a lower shooting percentage than Winslow has done.

For perspective, the players guarded by Winslow are shooting worse than players defended by Andre Iguodola (43.8), Paul Pierce (44.2), Kobe Bryant (45.2), Jimmy Butler (45.9) and Luol Deng (46.4), among many other wing players.

Winslow, 19, also has improved his rebounding recently, and his 9.1 rebounds per 48 minutes rank 14th among 58 qualifying small forwards.

“Justise is a very good perimeter rebounder, but now he’s sticking his nose in there as we need it, gang-rebound mentality,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.

▪ Richardson, 22, ranks 13th in field-goal percentage allowed among 39 rookies, with two lottery picks just ahead of him. “I see a lot of growth; I like what he’s been doing,” Dwyane Wade said.

Players guarded by Richardson are shooting 44.5 percent, a point less than they do otherwise. That 44.5 is better than shooting percentages allowed by point guards Rajon Rondo (44.7), Mike Conley (45.1), Tony Parker (45.9), rookie No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell (46.1), Chris Paul (46.5) and others.

“Defensively, that’s their niche,” Johnson said of Whiteside, Winslow and Richardson. “They stick with it. They’ve got their little defensive club. I’m trying to join the young guys in the defensive club. I’m always teasing them.”

JOHNSON IMPROVES

Guard Tyler Johnson, recovering from shoulder surgery, said he’s able to do everything on the court except shoot. He still has pain when he shoots and has been advised not to do that until the pain subsides. He said he remains optimistic about an April return.

Sunday: 76ers

at Heat

When/where: 6 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.

TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 55-53.

Scouting report: The Heat has now won 21 of the past 24 in the series after Friday’s 112-102 victory in Philadelphia. But the Heat needs to do a better job defensively against the 76ers’ backcourt of Ish Smith (26 points, eight rebounds Friday) and Robert Covington (25 points).

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