Lots of Heat chatter on a Wednesday:
▪ With Hassan Whiteside not getting the minutes he believed he deserved, and the Heat dissatisfied at times with the uneven effort, it was clear — as recently as two weeks ago — that something needed to change with the Whiteside/Heat dynamic.
Since the All-Star break, three things have changed for the better — one for everyone to see and two behind the scenes.
What’s visible to everyone is that the Whiteside on display in three games since the break has been generally what the Heat wants — a fully engaged player displaying effort, passion and alertness on defense, along with the usual volume rebounding and blocks.
But here’s what happened behind the scenes: Whiteside said he met with Erik Spoelstra “right after the All-Star” break and Spoelstra showed an increased willingness to let him play through mistakes, which Whiteside very much appreciates.
The upshot has been an increase in minutes, from just more than 25 per game before the break to more than 33 in the two tight games the Heat has played since then (not including the blowout win against Memphis). Whiteside has been on the court for meaningful fourth-quarter moments in both games.
“Our communication, me and Spo, is better,” Whiteside told me Wednesday. “When I make a mistake, he’s not yanking me as fast. He’s letting me play through mistakes rather than taking me out so early.”
That came into play Tuesday against Philadelphia. Spoelstra was dissatisfied with Whiteside’s first four minutes but allowed him to play through it.
Whiteside was “terrific” the rest of the night, Spoelstra said, closing with 15 points, 11 boards, three blocks, three assists, several outstanding under-the-radar defensive plays (as Dwyane Wade noted) and a couple of floor burns and a plus-19 plus/minus.
So did Whiteside ask for a longer leash in that conversation with Spoelstra?
“No, we both kind of said that,” Whiteside said. “We have a lot of years together.”
But here’s what Whiteside needed to understand: It’s not all about the numbers, not by any means. There has seemingly been a disconnect there, and it clearly frustrated Spoelstra.
Whereas Whiteside in January and February would tell reporters that his stats per 36 minutes compared favorably with his number’s last season and encouraged reporters to tweet his high efficiency rating, Spoelstra didn’t want to hear it, going as far as to say this on Jan. 15 in Chicago: “I actually don’t care about his double-doubles at all. It has nothing to do with that.”
Whiteside now understands that.
Spoelstra, he said, is “real tough on winning plays, plays that affect the team in a positive way. That’s a big thing here.” And Whiteside now knows that will be the barometer by which he is judged here.
Spoelstra smiled Wednesday when asked how often he has had to tell Whiteside it’s not about the numbers.
“It’s never about the boxscore,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t want him to ever get confused about that. I know it’s easy to in today’s day and age. But it’s about his activity level, his energy. His ability to sustain both those things and his commitment to make winning plays. And he’s been very good since the break.”
The player focus on stats is “not exclusive to Hassan,” Spoelstra said. “Every player that comes into the league; you see so many stats out there [and] 90 percent of the players in the league look at those boxscore stats. Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s how guys also gain individual accolades or how they get better contracts. Sometimes it has to do with that more than it does with winning.”
The welt on Whiteside’s right elbow “shows how active he was,” Spoelstra said. “He was on the floor twice. Those multiple efforts are inspiring to our basketball team.”
Wade put it this way Wednesday: “The good thing about [Whiteside] is his and coach’s relationship is in a better place where they can both understand that they both want the same thing and he’s not feeling like coach is just on him all the time.
“When Hassan plays with that passion and grit and that anger, he’s special. I definitely saw that before I left [for Chicago]. There are not many bigs like that. He’s special. Sometimes that specialness has to go into other things on the court [besides] just being big. And that’s what coach is on him about. I thought [Tuesday] night, once he got into the game, he did a hell of a job and was a big key in us winning this game.”
Wade, who has said he was tough on Whiteside at times before leaving for the Bulls in July 2016, said Whiteside “realized [what] I wanted for him is to be the best player [he] can be. He’s halfway there with some of the things he wanted to do with being in the NBA, by being in a beautiful home and being able to take care of his parents the way he has. Now it’s the next level and what his talents will allow him to do.”
Did Whiteside gain motivation from watching Joel Embiid play down the stretch of the All-Star Game, knowing he wanted to be in that spot? “I didn’t watch it,” he said. “I was having dinner.”
But he admits that seeing Embiid and Detroit’s Andre Drummond named to the All-Star team is a motivator. “It’s on the fans and coaches,” he said. “I know I missed a lot of games this year. I definitely feel like I should have been an All-Star the last couple of years.”
▪ This nugget, courtesy of ESPN’s Stats and Info: Before Tuesday’s game-winner, Wade had missed 14 straight potential go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds. It was his first such basket since March 10, 2012, against the Pacers.
▪ Per Elias, Wade’s 27 points Tuesday were the third most he has scored in a one-point win in a regular-season NBA game, behind a 37-point game in 2008 and a 31-point performance the following year. And of course, Wade scored 43 points, 21 from the line, in Miami’s 101–100 overtime win over Dallas to take a 3–2 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals.
▪ Down the stretch against the 76ers, Spoelstra used a lineup that hadn’t played a single minute together before Tuesday: Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk (playing in his first game since Wade was acquired), Josh Richardson, Goran Dragic and Wade.
That group played six minutes together, shot 7 for 9 (mostly Wade) and outscored Philadelphia by six points.
Richardson, Dragic, Wade and Olynyk figure to play regularly down the stretch of close games. The fifth spot in that late-game lineup could be Whiteside (on nights he’s playing well or the opposing team has a lineup where playing Whiteside gives Miami an advantage) or any one else who has a hot hand that night (perhaps Wayne Ellington or Tyler Johnson) or James Johnson or Bam Adebayo on nights he’s clearly outplaying Whiteside.
A lot of this is obviously dictated by matchups or, in some cases, sticking with a lineup that helped the Heat rally.
▪ No surprise that the Heat outscored Philadelphia by 11 during Olynyk’s 25 minutes in his first game back. Olynyk is now plus-111 this season, best on the team.
Here’s my Wednesday post on some draft-eligible linebackers on the Dolphins’ radar.
Here’s my Wednesday post with a six-pack of UM notes, including a new defensive line coach on the way and an update on Ahmmon Richards’ knee.