Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Catalyst for Miami Heat’s small-ball is big man Hassan Whiteside

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Houston Rockets in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Miami.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Houston Rockets in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Miami. AP

After a sluggish start, a scoring flurry and then a brief rest Sunday against the Rockets, Chris Bosh was sent to the scorer’s table. It was time, under ordinary circumstances, for Erik Spoelstra to put in his starting power forward to play beside center Hassan Whiteside.

Except these circumstances weren’t ordinary.

Small-ball had broken out.

That meant breaking the mold … and going with one or the other.

“Hassan got two dunks,” Bosh said. “I looked back at Coach and he was like, ‘Come on back.’ 

Spoelstra had insisted, prior to Sunday’s tip, that he intended to dictate style against the Rockets, who had to play small without Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. He wanted to make the undermanned, undersized Rockets adjust to Miami’s available roster, which includes one of the NBA’s more traditional, and larger, frontcourts.

Then he switched up and kept going smaller … and smaller.

When did he decide?

“You saw it,” Spoelstra said. “It was when we were down double digits.”

The Rockets were speeding, spreading and swishing.

Time for tweaking.

“That’s what this league is becoming,” Spoelstra said of small-ball. “You have to have the versatility on the roster, that you can play different styles.”

So, by night’s end, Whiteside and Bosh would play only 10 minutes together, Josh McRoberts was the only other big to play any (five), Luol Deng and Justise Winslow had shared time at power forward, Dwyane Wade had slid to small forward, and Tyler Johnson and Mario Chalmers had been paired for a long period in the backcourt.

What Sunday showed was that Miami does have versatility, in terms of viable players of all sizes. Still, that won’t stop opponents from testing it. Houston did so out of desperation. Others, maybe even Atlanta on Tuesday, will do so by choice.

“I think [teams] are going to run against us,” point guard Goran Dragic said. “That is going to be the thing. We struggle against the teams who are fast, who spread the floor with four or five players. It’s hard, if they are a shooting team, too. That is going to be our biggest challenge this season.”

Dragic said it’s critical for the Heat to make smart offensive decisions, to eliminate long rebounds that lead to transition opportunities. His concern is legitimate: NBA scouts characterize the Heat’s speed — in their veteran starting lineup — as lower-echelon.

Bosh expects plenty of small-ball from opponents too, “but that’s OK” because of Miami’s depth and unselfishness. “Even Josh was like, ‘If I don’t play, I don’t play,’ ” Bosh said. “Next man up. It’s going to be like that sometimes.”

For him, too. Which seems strange. Because he, however inadvertently, started this. His absence during the 2012 playoffs forced Spoelstra to experiment, inserting 6-foot-8 wing Shane Battier as a stretch “power” forward, and then leaving him there when Bosh returned. Bosh excelled at center. Small-ball prevailed. Copycats bred all over the NBA.

“Now it’s like, we got to stay ahead of the curve,” Bosh said. “We got to kind of perfect the total. You’ve got to give it to Golden State. They can go small, they can go big, they can go medium. They can go everything. That’s kind of the next evolution, to be able to do it all. And to have big guys who can move and guard.”

Bosh is one. He has shown he can succeed as an undersized center. If he’s at power forward, and a team puts a smaller wing against him, as Houston did with Trevor Ariza, he believes he can handle that too.

Still, the biggest reason for the Heat’s confidence against small-ball is Whiteside, so long as he’s engaged on both ends. Sunday, he recorded 25 points and 15 rebounds, while altering more than the two shots he blocked.

“That’s the thing with Hassan, he’s a conventional center but he’s a mobile center,” Chalmers said. “He’s able to move, get blocks, get out on the perimeter if he wants to. So [small-ball] plays into our hands a little bit.”

Gerald Green expects opponents to try everything. “But, I mean, you got big fella down there, Whiteside, it’s gonna be hard to play small,” Green said. “So good luck to the teams that do that. If big fella is playing like that, there’s really nothing they can do.”

What Houston did Sunday was wilt, after Spoelstra began a series of small-ball subs. After Miami won by 20, Wade, while acknowledging “small-ball is the way” in the league, identified Whiteside as the way to counter it.

“I’m sure there will be moments where they’re gonna get us on it, and it’s gonna affect us, but we can’t take him off the floor,” Wade said. “He means so much to our defense. So we’ll just have to figure it out.”

Sunday, against small-ball, Miami took a big step.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Tuesday: Hawks at Heat

When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena.

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

Series: Heat leads 57-46.

Scouting report: The Hawks swept the Heat last season on their way to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta (3-1) won at New York and Charlotte and is ranked seventh in the NBA in field goal percentage. Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha (ankle) will not play against the Heat.

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