Screen setting in the NBA is often a job that doesn’t come with a lot of glory — unless the ball finds its way back to the man sacrificing his body to free up his teammate.
Hassan Whiteside has often been on the rewarding end of those pick-and-roll situations, catching lobs from his teammates for easy dunks. Other times, he’s let his teammates down by not committing himself nearly long enough to set a good screen, leaving too early in search of the lob and hurting the Heat’s offense.
Wednesday night, though, wasn’t one of those instances. Before the Heat ended the Boston Celtics’ 16-game winning streak, Miami’s $98 million center stood up in front of teammates in the locker room prior to the game, according to tri-captain James Johnson, and promised he was going to do a better job setting screens.
Then, he went out and did it.
“We all got the chills from that,” Johnson said of Whiteside’s pregame speech, which came in the aftermath of starting guards Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic calling him out for not setting good enough screens following Sunday’s embarrassing 25-point home loss to the Indiana Pacers.
“We all kind of built on that. We knew what Hassan Whiteside we were getting.”
The Whiteside the Heat got wasn’t the one thrusting for rim-rattling jams. It was the selfless guy who showed up pregame, who finished 4 of 5 from the field with eight points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and a five screen assists according to the NBA’s hustle stats (one shy of his season-high six at Utah).
The Heat finished with 14 screen assists as a team, only a couple days after Whiteside didn’t have any against the Pacers and Miami combined for six — one fewer than Pacers center Myles Turner had by himself.
“I would argue that this might have been Hassan’s best screening game,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You look at so many things that are deceptive about a box score. He has eight points and 10 rebounds, which is pretty pedestrian for him, and a minus-11 in plus-minus, and it doesn’t, at all, display the type of winning plays that he was making.
“This is what we’re trying to help him with — to understand how to really impact winning in all facets.”
Whiteside’s five shot attempts were the fewest he’s had in a game since signing his four-year, $98 million deal with the Heat in the summer of 2016. His only shot in the fourth quarter of a nip-and-tuck game was a tip-in basket in crunch time.
Instead of relying on their big guy to score points, Dragic and Waiters led the way for Miami with 27 and 26 points, respectively, taking 41 of the Heat’s 81 shots in the process. The 53 combined points by Waiters and Dragic were the second-most the Heat’s starting backcourt has had together in a game since joining forces last season (they combined for 58 in a win over Milwaukee in January).
Afterward, Waiters and Dragic were thankful to Whiteside for heeding their criticism and taking the right approach on Wednesday.
“Me and Dion were in the paint all night,” Dragic said. “I felt like he was great. I even told him after the game, when he’s setting these kind of screens, it makes my job and Dion’s job so much easier because we have more time to create, to read the defense.
“That’s how we need to play, not to shy away from our game. We need to be aggressive, just try to get inside the paint. Only good things are going to happen.”
But the Heat, which ranks second in the league in drives to the basket, can only be effective doing that when Whiteside plays like he did Wednesday. Waiters, who watched film from the Pacers game with his center and told him the kind of screens he and Dragic need to be successful, said he’ll continue to stay in Whiteside’s ear moving forward.
“Whitey sometimes tries to come up there and get the roll,” Waiters said. “Most of the time if you’re not hitting the guys, it’s hard for us to really get into the paint because of how they’re playing us, because they don’t want us to get the lob [to him]. [Wednesday] he was holding the screens that allowed us to turn the corner, get downhill between us and the [opposing] big [man].
“From here on out, I’m going to expect that every night and if [he’s not going to do it] I’m going to have to say something. Be mad at me, call me all the names, if that is going to help us get wins, we need that. If he’s screening, man, he’s big, he’s so strong. After a while, man, guys are not going to want to keep going over screens.”