All that was missing from Hassan Whiteside was a mic drop.
“If you’re going to believe in any side, believe in Whiteside.”
And with that, the Miami Heat’s embattled center exited his Fox Sports Sun postgame interview with Jason Jackson on Wednesday and headed to the All-Star break.
Whiteside just had an impressive bounce-back game with 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, while leading the Heat to a second victory over the Rockets this season, this one by a 117-109 score in Houston. The win came two nights after Whiteside had another moment that had the Heat — and their media relations staffers who monitor every syllable that comes out of the 27-year-old’s mouth trying to save him from himself — shaking their heads.
Following the home loss to the Magic, Whiteside questioned why coach Erik Spoelstra benched him early in the game — something that has happened much too often the season. He acknowledged it was because of a lack of effort on the boards, but then reminded all that he leads the league in rebounding. “I know how to rebound,” he said. He also touted his individual stats, insisting he did his part defensively, this while teammates were expressing disappointment with the team defense.
But this is how it has been in the first year of Whiteside’s four-year, $98 million contract. Each time he takes two steps forward, it’s followed by one step back.
Spoelstra and Whiteside downplayed the comments the following day and Whiteside then illustrated why he is so frustrating, dominating the Rockets in one of his better efforts, on both ends.
“Much better,” Spoelstra said when asked to assess Whiteside’s game Wednesday. “When he plays with that level of physicality and focus, it’s plain to see we are a much different basketball team. To be able to win in this building, that doesn’t happen without Hassan playing at his highest level, which you saw (Wednesday). The multiple efforts, imposing his size and physicality on both sides of the court.”
Part of what makes Spoelstra one of the league’s best coaches — and one playing himself into coach of the year conversation — is the way he handles Whiteside. He knows when Whiteside needs to be sent to timeout and when his big man has stewed long enough on the bench.
And he sees a player who is making progress. The maddening part is that progress is coming in baby steps, not the strides one would expect from a 7-footer.
Spoelstra insists Whiteside has played “winning” basketball since Miami’s 1-6 road trip in early January, the one that was immediately followed by a 13-game winning streak and now has the Heat at 25-32 and in playoff contention as they break for All-Star weekend.
And, as Spoelstra pointed out, that winning basketball was not accompanied by Whiteside’s best statistical stretch.
In the 12 games Whiteside played during the winning streak, he averaged 14.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. The Heat outscored opponents by an average of six points per game when he was on the floor. In his previous 37 games, Whiteside averaged 17.5 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. The Heat were outscored by an average of about three points per game when he was on the floor.
Even though the NBA did not “believe in Whiteside” when it came to replacing Kevin Love for the All-Star Game, that went to the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Whiteside was in the conversation, which Spoelstra says is because the league recognized the impact he made beyond the box score during the streak.
“When you shoulder a bigger responsibility as one of your better players and you have a losing record even with good stats, the league might not recognize that being an All-Star,” Spoelstra said.
Whiteside is an enigma. At times he knows exactly what to say and appears to have learned the lessons of sitting on the bench while watching his teammates give maximum effort.
“Get loose balls. Get loose rebounds. Those are winning plays,” he said hours before dominating the Rockets. “Hustle points. Those are winning plays. Getting a tough block. That’s a winning play. There’s a lot of things that are winning plays.”
And he made all of those hours later.
But then there are the brain cramps when he complains about not enough touches or uses a sprained ankle as an excuse or Monday when he washed his hands of the loss.
But two days later, there he was, earning his money, dominated the team with the third-best record in the West, playing his best in the clutch … and proving why he is infuriating, perhaps more so than any player to wear a Miami Heat uniform.