Ethan J. Skolnick

Heat ‘phenomenon’ Hassan Whiteside leads 113-99 win vs. Pelicans

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) and New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca (42) battle under the basket in the first half in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) and New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca (42) battle under the basket in the first half in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. AP

Sure, Hassan Whiteside saw it. He sees just about everything that’s said, since just about everything these days makes its way through social media.

This, though, wasn’t a complaint, from a frustrated fan or a nitpicking media member. This was a compliment, of the highest order, from the man on the highest level of the Heat’s personnel acquisition and retention chain. Sunday, at the Heat’s annual charity Family Festival, Heat president Pat Riley raved of Whiteside’s development: “In my 50 years in the NBA, I’ve never seen that kind of phenomenon. I know that’s hurting me right now as far as free agency goes, complimenting him. But he’s really grown a lot.”

That growth was evident again Tuesday, in Miami’s 113-99 win against the ravaged but plucky Pelicans, a team playing without five of its top six scorers, including franchise cornerstone Anthony Davis. No, Whiteside wasn’t facing the fiercest competition, not when his primary foes were plodding pivots Omer Asik and Kendrick Perkins, but, recall, this was a player who was sitting many fourth quarters early in the season.

Tuesday, Whiteside was making many the pivotal plays, whether it was saving a possession by snatching a Dwyane Wade pass and finishing, or stroking a jump shot, or scrambling to retrieve a loose ball. He finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds, on 10-of-11 shooting in 30 minutes, while adding three blocks, numbers worthy of the best centers Riley ever coached, decorated men such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

That was Whiteside’s 14th double-double in 16 games since the All-Star break.

All as a reserve.

That’s more than worthy of Riley’s praise.

“You know, Pat’s seen all kinds of players,” Whiteside said. “And for him to say that, I’m just blown away.”

Observers should be, too, with what he’s doing. They shouldn’t get jaded, and take it for granted, considering the giant strides Whiteside’s taken, from the Charlotte YMCA to the Heat’s X-factor in the closing moments.

“There were a handful of plays that I found very encouraging,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You saw him challenging in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter challenging everything at the rim. Even the foul was him making you feel his presence and making the opponent aware that he’s there. Teams are getting very complex with their pick-and-roll defense and the flaring and attacking guards, but you can’t just play the rim. You have to do multiple things, and he’s taken steps forward with that.”

Nor should Heat fans take for granted what this particular team has accomplished, in light of all the adversity, now 12-5 since the All-Star break without arguably its best two-way player, Chris Bosh, even if Tuesday’scompetition was hardly its stiffest.

In his first 20 seasons as president of the Miami Heat, Riley presided over only four below-.500 seasons. Now it’s official: this won’t be the fifth. At some point, over the final dozen games — if perhaps not Wednesday in San Antonio against the streaking Spurs — it will be the Heat’s 17th winning season in that 21-season span.

Consider that, during that same period, the franchise Riley fled — New York — has just nine winning seasons, and the first six came with protégé Jeff Van Gundy leading them. The Knicks are now working on their 12th losing season in the past 15.

Consider that, during Riley’s 21 Heat years, the previously dominant South Florida sports franchise, the Miami Dolphins, has 10 winning seasons, three .500 seasons, and eight losing seasons.

And finally, consider this:

The last time LeBron James left a team in the lurch, the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010, they followed that with four straight losing seasons, and a record of 97-215.

Miami is now 78-74.

Tuesday, the Heat shot 50 percent, with Wade and Goran Dragic — who seemed out of step earlier this season — combining for 46.

“Me and Goran never listened to any of it, about we can’t play together,” Wade said. “We heard it all, but we never believed it. We knew it was going to take time to develop the game that we were trying to develop, for him and for me. We never played together in this capacity.”

The team appears confident and connected, seeming to find its groove and grins as players have found their niches; it’s common now to see anyone from Luol Deng to Dragic pulling other players together, to provide instruction. And Wade said he welcomes that, because “it’s their team; I think early on, they kind of looked at it as me and Chris’ team.”

Also helping: that the team’s elders look increasingly spry; while Joe Johnson went just 2 of 7 against the Pelicans, Miami got 16 points and nine rebounds in just 15 minutes from Amar’e Stoudemire.

“I’m starting to develop a good idea of how things are flowing, offensively and defensively,” Stoudemire said.

And when he comes out, in comes Whiteside.

“It was a great job of just my teammates, they found me, and I tried to make the best play I could,” Whiteside said. “I tried to get the offensive rebound. Just try to keep moving, get to the open shots, get every loose ball, get every rebound, and try to get the win for us. Guys are trusting me. Just good decision-making down the stretch.”

All of this will be tested much more on Wednesday, against a Spurs squad that that has won 44 straight games in San Antonio, a place that Stoudemire, Wade and others have had their share of battles.

“It will be a big test,” Dragic said. “But we have nothing to lose.”

Plus, plenty of Heat players have been passing tests of late.

Starting with a center who is starring even though he isn’t starting.

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

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