Ethan J. Skolnick

After Whiteside's injury, it's hard to see how Heat overcomes

Heat center Hassan Whiteside is helped off the court during the second quarter of Game 3 against the Raptors.
Heat center Hassan Whiteside is helped off the court during the second quarter of Game 3 against the Raptors.

Hassan Whiteside can be a man of clever words at times, silly ones at others, and short ones when frustrated. This occasion called solely for the latter.

What went through his mind after his right knee buckled, early in the second quarter?

"Um, bad," Whiteside said, after Miami's 95-91 loss gave Toronto a 2-1 lead in the series. "That's the first thing."

And this is the absolute last thing that the Miami Heat needed this postseason -- an injury that members of the Heat organization and in Whiteside's camp both feared serious, with an MRI scheduled for Sunday.

Even before Chris Bosh was sidelined for the season with a recurrence of clotting, there was a commonly shared sentiment inside 601 Biscayne Blvd. Yes, the Heat had plenty of proven players, from Bosh to Dwyane Wade to Goran Dragic to Luol Deng. No, Whiteside wasn't anywhere near the most reliable, in performance or personality, among them.

But he was undoubtedly the most critical.

He was the one who, if channeled correctly, could lift this from a nice little squad to a fearsome one, a squad that could even scare the Cleveland Cavaliers should it come to that -- since most teams to topple LeBron James in the playoffs have had at least two perimeter players who could make James work (which Miami has in Deng and Justise Winslow) and a rim protector who could make him think. He was the unaccountable element, the one who might literally swat away a superior opponent, should he be energized, focused and disciplined for an extended stretch.

The Heat knew how much it needed him, Erik Spoelstra above all. That's why, for all the warts (in Whiteside's game) and worries (about his contract) Spoelstra invested more personal time in the 26-year-old center than anyone else in the past eight years. That's why, on the Friday night prior to Game 3, with so much else at stake, Spoelstra was at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, dining in a group with Whiteside and Bill Russell, aiming to expose Whiteside to the ultimate winner.

That's why Wade, as the team leader, while critical of Whiteside at times, also took opportunities to pump him up, even suggesting this could be a "Hall of Fame career."

This wasn't just a passing interest, after all. The Heat wants to make Whiteside a core component, wants to see his development all the way through, especially after improvements in foul shooting and screen-setting and -- to a degree -- composure, in the second half of this second Miami season. And perhaps, regardless of the severity of the injury, that will still occur; maybe, in the worst case, it comes at a reduced cost in free agency in this cruelest of businesses.

But, for this particular postseason, it's hard to see how the Heat competes for much without Whiteside. Win this series? Maybe. Wade nearly saved them Saturday, with a remarkable 38-point performance, and Udonis Haslem was his usual spirited self while playing a season-high 22 minutes. Heat players generally believe the Raptors are beatable, though some were baffled about why movement was mostly taken out of the offensive plan for Game 3. And Toronto started making rollicking rim runs as soon as Whiteside went out.

Beat Cleveland?

That seems fantasy. Wade has gone above and beyond already, and everything he's doing should be appreciated. But the Cavaliers are rolling now, 7-0 in the postseason, seeming past their regular season drama.

Whiteside was always the X-factor.

Now he may be X'd out. He accused Lowry of diving at his legs. The replay, however, shows that Lowry was actually pulling at Whiteside's arm, and Whiteside leg got caught up with that of Deng, who wasn't aware until told post-game. Most players didn't get a chance to talk to Whiteside before he trudged out slowly in a soft cast, having declared his pain level a "seven" out of 10. When they see the replay, they'll see a knee buckle.

And probably, the Heat's longer-than-longshot title hopes with it.

Whiteside hurt the same knee in Game 1, but differently.

"One I could play through, and this one I couldn't," he said.

If the Heat needs to play without him, in Game 4, or beyond?

"It's one of the most unfortunate parts of this game," Wade said. "We're without one of the best players to ever play the game in Chris Bosh, and right now we don't know about Hassan, who is a big part of what we do. But that doesn't mean anything. We still have a series to play. Toronto ain't gonna care."

The Heat plays on, because it must.

After a very, um, bad day.

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