He certainly didn’t want to come off like he was complaining but before Friday’s loss in Orlando, Heat center Hassan Whiteside admitted it hasn’t been easy for him coming off the bench over the last two months.
As long as he keeps playing at a high level, he probably won’t ever have to do it again.
In Sunday’s regular-season home finale, Whiteside found himself back in the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 20. He also was at the center of an easy 118-96 victory over the Magic at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We need a higher level from Hassan and I thought that time is right now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This basketball team needs him at his best level, his most aggressive level, his most consistent level, his most reliable level, his most dominant, physical level.
“He responded in the right way. But now the challenge will be to do it again.”
On Sunday, Whiteside scored 18 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked two shots in 28 minutes and helped keep the Heat (47-33) in position to earn home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Miami would open the playoffs at home if it wins its final two games at Detroit and Boston on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It’s unclear whether rookie Justise Winslow will play in either of those games. The Heat’s best perimeter defender and season-leader in games played left Sunday’s game with a left ankle sprain with 4:26 to play in the third quarter. Spoelstra said Winslow asked to return to the game but the Heat thinks it’s more important he gets healthy for the start of the playoffs.
“Once I kind of walked it off, got back here [in the locker room] it felt good enough,” said Winslow, who said he injured the ankle when his foot landed on Whiteside’s. “But there’s a bigger picture. So I’ll try to get ready for the weekend.”
Unlike Friday’s loss in Orlando when Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic killed Miami, combining for 57 points, the Heat did a much better job corralling the Magic’s pick-and-roll offense and making its own free throws.
Miami, which missed 10 of 21 from the line in Orlando, finished 26 of 30 from the stripe Sunday, led by Whiteside’s 8-for-8 effort (he was 1-for-7 on Friday).
Dwyane Wade had 17 points, three rebounds and three assists in only 24 minutes, earning a good rest as the Heat led 89-69 after three quarters.
Luol Deng had 20 points and five assists and Goran Dragic scored 11 of his 19 points in the opening quarter when the Heat shot 75 percent, its second-best shooting quarter of the season.
But the story was Whiteside and his return to the starting lineup. He said he didn’t find out he was starting until about two hours before tipoff. Wade said Spoelstra came to him to talk about the decision and wouldn’t have put Whiteside back in the starting lineup if he wasn’t confident he was ready.
“I feel like it helps,” Whiteside said. “Me and D-Wade get to get more minutes together. Playing with Joe [Johnson] is a little different. But he’s a really great player. I think it's a little easier for me. I can go to the layup line and go right into the game. I don’t have to warm up and then try to come off the bench and get warm again.”
Since coming back from a hip injury on Feb. 3 that cost him six games, Whiteside had come off the bench in 29 consecutive games, averaging 16.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 29.3 minutes. The Heat had settled into a steady rotation with veteran Amar’e Stoudemire starting and Whiteside coming off the bench and teaming up with rookies Winslow and Josh Richardson.
Now, Whiteside’s return creates new rotations and lineup possibilities for the playoffs.
When Whiteside went to the bench Sunday, it was Josh McRoberts (who had played in only nine of the Heat’s last 21 games and mostly in garbage time) who replaced him and played with Miami’s speed unit of Richardson, Winslow, Dragic and Deng. McRoberts played 20 minutes and finished with six points (1 of 6 shooting), four rebounds and five assists.
“It's a different look from Hassan, a different look from Stat,” Richardson said. “It's kind of like having five guards on the court because he can do a lot of things that other big man can't. With that unit many of us can get it off the board and just go. It makes it a little bit easier."
Stoudemire didn’t play Sunday for the first time since Jan. 13, a run of 40 games that included 36 consecutive starts.