Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: This time, Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside is the one rejecting Wizards

Washington Wizards guard Garrett Temple (17) and Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) defend against Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson (8) and Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Washington.
Washington Wizards guard Garrett Temple (17) and Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) defend against Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson (8) and Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, in Washington. AP

For much of this season, Hassan Whiteside has been the one doing all the rejecting, block by block, now 132 in all. But on Dec. 7, he felt a little rejected himself, not playing in the final 15 minutes of the Heat’s loss to Washington. And even though he had made all seven of his shots, coach Erik Spoelstra simply wasn’t comfortable with him defending against the Wizards’ small, quick lineups.

“It was a major story line, it was a lightning-rod game the way it finished in the fourth quarter,” Spoelstra acknowledged late Sunday, after the Heat smothered the Wizards in the rematch 97-75.

It wasn’t just outside noise, either. Whiteside required reassurance about his role. On Dec. 8, in addition to long workday of meetings, video review and court work that featured teammates drilling Whiteside on the finer points of flashing to the perimeter, the coach and the center had a conversation.

“I mean, basically we just came to an agreement,” Whiteside said, following Sunday’s 13-rebound, six-block performance that had opposing center Marcin Gortat calling him the greatest shotblocker he has ever seen. “Coach wasn’t comfortable. I just told him, ‘Just trust me. Let me show you I can’t guard somebody.’ He basically agreed. He said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance.’ And, hey, you can go small if you want. There’s a reason why basketball was created with centers and power forwards. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for that.”

That reason was evident in this game against the Wizards and most clearly in the second quarter, when Washington scored just two points during the seven minutes and 45 seconds that Whiteside was patrolling the paint, from the restricted area to the perimeter edge.

“He can dominate a game without scoring,” Chris Bosh said.

And Whiteside did, dominating that quarter in particular, though he would finish the first half scoreless, missing three jumpers among his five shots.

As he joked later, “You know, I brought my defensive bag [of tricks] with me. I forgot my offensive bag in Miami.”

Whiteside had plenty of help in denying the Wizards who, while similarly short-handed, had scored 114 points in the first meeting in Miami. That help came from teammates, especially guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic, who were out there for the entire 7:45 stretch and kept fighting through traffic so the Heat could avoid early, and over, rotation. That help also came from Spoelstra’s strategic tinkering, with Heat defenders often going under screens to force John Wall (6 of 21 overall) to score rather than assist.

“That was a big difference,” said Dragic, who was also excellent offensively, flying in transition and finishing second in scoring (18) to Bosh’s 23.

But the biggest difference was the Heat’s biggest man, who, for all his gifts and growth, can still be a rather big enigma. Whiteside is on pace to obliterate Alonzo Mourning’s team shot-blocking records, and yet most of the advanced metrics show the Heat has been stingier defensively when he’s been watching. It might be because he’s too block-hungry, sometimes straying from his man in search of a swat, and sometimes leaving his man alone when that assignment drifts outside.

This isn’t just Spoelstra or the media seeing this. Teammates have harped on it, too. That’s why they so many took part in the personal instruction during that Dec. 8 practice, from centers to forwards to guards. Wade realizes it can be “uncomfortable” for Whiteside to come out to the perimeter, not only because “he’s so great at protecting the rim,” but because “Hassan is very prideful.”

“He doesn’t want his guy getting dunks,” Wade said. “So he had to be confident knowing that we were there to help him and be behind him.”

They were, during that practice. They were, during Sunday’s game. And, often, they weren’t even needed: Two Whiteside blocks came far from the basket. He blocked Gortat four times but also got guards Garrett Temple and Jarell Eddie once apiece.

“Yeah, I can guard guards,” Whiteside said. “I’m different. I’m built different from all the other 7-footers, I guess. I can play on the perimeter. That don’t really bother me. I don’t think that should even be really a factor.”

He was a major factor Sunday. This is why teammates want him on the court, so long as he can cover more of it.

“Every coach we play against, they know I’m down there,” Whiteside said. “I can hear them talking to the refs on every defensive possession, who’s Whiteside guarding, where’s Whiteside, what is Whiteside doing? It’s because Whiteside is a shot blocker.

“You want to have that center out there, just to defend your rim.”

He defended more than just that Sunday. He blitzed. He rotated. Then, in the fourth quarter, he rested. Again. This time, only the Wizards felt rejected.

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