Bounce, spin, slam. Again. And again. It went on like this for roughly 20 minutes, the same amount of time Hassan Whiteside spent on the court in the Heat’s season opener. On this day, the day after, Whiteside worked under the watch of David Fizdale and against the resistance of Juwan Howard. And when the physical work was finally done, the Heat’s current center encountered the franchise’s true big-man Buddha, a not-so-regular Joe named Zo, resting regally in a practice courtside seat, ready to deliver the mental and emotional portion of the mentoring program.
“He was just saying how good I played [Wednesday],” Whiteside revealed to reporters later. “And just keep working. He was just talking about coming in, putting in the hard work every day.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that even Alonzo Mourning — scowling menace as a player — would, as an executive, put a smiley face on Whiteside’s uneven Wednesday effort. The Hall of Famer, like so many in the Heat organization, is aware of the delicate nature of this project, finding an equilibrium between crashing Whiteside’s confidence and inflating his ego.
That is likely to be an ongoing dance, even if the Heat keeps winning, as it did Wednesday night, 104-94 against Charlotte, with a anxiously awaited meeting with the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Friday. The game against the Hornets was as informative as it was entertaining.
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It showed us something that Whiteside — and his teammates — should come to understand.
This season is different. This team is different. This roster has relative equals and plentiful options: big, small, fast, slow, young, old.
This train won’t wait, not with coach Erik Spoelstra conducting. Nor should it. And it didn’t Wednesday, not after Charlotte’s below-the-rim ballerina Al Jefferson had scored eight points in the opening 4:26, while Whiteside had committed two turnovers if only one foul, while missing a long jumper. More concerning? He appeared mopey.
From there, Spoelstra had Whiteside watch and wait for 15 minutes and 25 seconds while Udonis Haslem — experienced at jostling with Jefferson — and Chris Bosh got turns in the middle. That second stint was better, and then Whiteside was more engaged in the second half, collaborating with Dwyane Wade on pressure-applying pick-and-rolls, recording all four of his points, five of his six rebounds and both of his blocks.
Still, the message had been sent and, hopefully, for his sake, heard.
Minutes will be earned. By everyone. Minutes through the middle of the game. Especially minutes at the end of the game, none of which Whiteside received, subbing out for the final time with 5:34 remaining as Spoelstra went smaller with Gerald Green complementing the four other starters.
As Wade put it, when speaking of the closing groups, “That’s the great thing about having a deep team, is Coach has the capability of playing multiple guys. A lot depends on how guys are playing.” And although Wade mentioned himself and Bosh as likely crunch-time staples, before quickly adding Goran Dragic’s name to that mix, it wouldn’t necessarily be an international incident anymore if any of those stalwarts sat down the stretch.
No one, necessarily, should feel entitled.
No one should be immune.
Certainly not a center still finding his niche, no matter how great his gifts.
On Thursday, at least during his media availability, it seemed as if Whiteside got it.
“I was just excited that we won,” Whiteside said.
He attributed his trouble with Jefferson to unfamiliarity, because they had never faced each other, and to being overly obsessed about Jefferson’s pump fakes early. When asked about his long stretch sitting, he spoke of recognizing that “last year’s team, it wasn’t as deep as this year’s team. We got four All-Stars on our team, possibly even more. We got guys who just can come in and just play right away. It’s a real deep team. So Coach is doing a good job of just getting guys to come in fresh off the bench and contribute as much as they can. Whatever you can do to win.”
The trick, of course, is to take his own mature words to heart. To put aside the pout. Wednesday was promising, in that he gathered himself after the early struggle and provided something of substance as the game progressed.
His teammates have made it no secret that his comportment is a concern. On Wednesday, I asked Wade if the veterans still needed to monitor Whiteside’s focus.
“Yeah,” Wade said. “Got to do it. It’s necessary. Hassan is still a young player. This is all new. This season is going to be a different experience than last year. Last year was just about playing basketball. It wasn’t about competing for a championship. So it’s a different experience for him. So, us as captains and leaders of this team, we understand that we need Hassan. And we got to continue to stay on him.”
That’s among the paradoxes of this particular season. The Heat does need Whiteside in a number of areas, as a rebounder, shot-blocker, finisher, intimidator. But it needs the right Whiteside. Locked in, not checking out. And if staying on him isn’t working, no need to always stay with him. No need to stay with anyone who’s scuffling, actually. Not with this roster. Not every night.
Friday: Heat at Cavaliers
When/where: 7 p.m., Quicken Loans Arena.
TV/radio: ESPN, SUN; WAXY 790 AM, WAQI 710 AM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 57-41.
Scouting report: In the teams’ only meeting this season in Cleveland (until, possibly, the playoffs), Miami enters in a more complete state. The Cavaliers dominated Memphis 106-76, but they’re still missing their starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist), and Kevin Love (shoulder), Tristan Thompson (holdout) and LeBron James (back) are all working their way back into game shape. This is Cleveland’s home opener, so the Heat should expect an electric environment.