Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Hassan Whiteside catalyst in tight Miami Heat win in Dallas

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90. AP

Hassan Whiteside’s sudden celebrity, at times, still comes as a surprise. Like after he got on the plane in Houston, after missing a sixth straight game with an oblique injury, and a flight attendant cited one of his sayings from his snapchat account.

“You’re different,” she joked.

Sure is.

And, Wednesday, in a 93-90 win that included key crunch-time performances from Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and especially Luol Deng, the sometimes-confounding, increasingly-polarizing center undeniably brought something different to the Heat.

Something necessary. Sometimes that kept the team in reach. Something that makes you wonder what Miami can be if he brings this energy, and maybe even if the Heat might be best served with him bringing it every night off the bench.

But that’s a topic for another night. On this one, we start with Whiteside, even if Erik Spoelstra didn’t, using Amar’e Stoudemire in that role, and giving Josh McRoberts some run before finally turning to Whiteside with 8:11 left in the second quarter.

The entrance was expected, since Spoelstra had come away satisfied with Whiteside’s conditioning while observing a 2-on-2 session prior to Miami’s loss to the Rockets on Tuesday. But Whiteside’s performance remained a mystery. There were questions about him both physically and tactically.

He hadn’t played in two weeks, since suffering what he described as a “really weird” injury, one that still had him feeling just “80 to 90 percent,” bothering him when he raised his left arm or sprinted. And he hadn’t played since Spoelstra significantly tweaked the offense at a practice in Chicago more than a week earlier. While Heat teammates touted those changes, some worried how things would work upon the inevitable return of Whiteside, who typically thrives at a slower pace.

Even Whiteside wasn’t quite sure.

“We added a couple of things,” Whiteside said. “I’m really interested to see how I play in that slot.”

That experiment got out to a really good beginning. Whiteside’s stint, until the intermission, could have been a “best of” compilation. It had everything he can offer when mentally and emotionally engaged.

The electric display opened in earnest with a dazzling move, originating from the extended left block, as Whiteside faced up JaVale McGee, bounced hard once, spun back to the paint, and slammed hard with his right hand. And on the other end, where Whiteside takes his most pride — so much that he lashed out against critics on social media this week — he was everywhere, including the Mavericks’ heads, swatting swats, grabbing a steal, getting in the way of other attempts.

While he played, Miami went from down one, to up five.

And then, after entering late in the third quarter, flipped the vinyl to the B-side, and there were some surprising gems there too, some of what his teammates have sought. He set a semi-decent screen for Goran Dragic, which allowed Dragic to lob to him for a slam. He hit Deng with a dart pass, which Deng finished, giving Whiteside the rarest of statistics: an assist, to go with his 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 17 minutes.

Yet he deserved an assist of another sort on this night, an assist for the win, even if he was watching at the end, as Wade made three of four late free throws, as Deng blocked Dirk Nowitzki and sank a corner three, as Bosh closed with a team-high 20 points, and as Mavericks guard Ray Felton missed a game-tying three short at the buzzer.

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

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