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Erik Spoelstra was in a bit of a mood over the weekend. When the Heat head coach addressed the media right before his team opened its first-round playoff series on the road in Philadelphia, he stood at the lectern just long enough to say hello and then goodbye. The whole affair lasted barely a minute and a half. I timed it. After his guys got walloped in Game 1, he was only a touch more talkative, sticking around to say that the Heat had work to do and the next game would have to be played on their terms if they had any shot at winning.
Their terms meant slowing things down. At practice Sunday at Temple University, Spoelstra anticipated that the Sixers would try to play even faster than they had in the opener—which was pretty damn fast. The Sixers were fourth in pace during the regular season, per NBA.com/Stats, which is not the way this Miami team usually wants to get after it. If the Sixers are a flash flood, the Heat are a slow drip. Miami lumbered along and finished 26th in pace. The game plans and styles were clear from both sides, which is why Spoelstra said his guys would have to prevent the Sixers from punching their offense into “hyperdrive” for Game 2.
That’s exactly what happened. The Heat played tough defense, held off a late Sixers run, stopped them from reaching “hyperdrive,” and pulled out a tough 113-103 win to even the series at one. As opposed to Game 1, the Sixers had a terrible shooting night from deep Monday (they started off 1-for-13 from 3-point range and finished 7-for-36). Considering how much slower and more physical Game 2 was, you’d think that the pace and play would have favored a Hassan White-side resurgence. Before tipoff, Spoelstra described his center as having “great size and force” and called him “a freak of nature.” He also said Whiteside has “the agility, the speed, quickness to be able to defend on the perimeter.”
“When he’s at the top of his game,” Spoelstra said, “he can play in a game like this.”
[Extremely narrator voice.] He was not at the top of his game.
Whiteside is 7 feet tall and 265 pounds. The paint is his house, and he’s loath to leave it. He found himself guarding Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova quite a bit to start the game, and both Sixers often pulled him away from the basket. That did not go well for Whiteside.
Not even four minutes into the first quarter, the Philly faithful started in on him with “Whiteside sucks” chants. Offensively, the Heat tried to post Whiteside early, but that didn’t work. He was on the bench after eight minutes. In the second quarter, they tossed a few more passes inside to him. Whiteside converted one lob pass for a layup, which prompted Miami’s social media team to snap into action.
On another entry pass, Ilyasova bumped Whiteside toward the baseline. Whiteside fumbled the ball before being called for traveling. More instant performance reports were chanted from the stands.
In the first game, Spoelstra put Whiteside on the bench after 12 minutes and left him there. In the second game, Whiteside pretty much benched himself, picking up a silly third foul in the second quarter while trying to guard Simmons full court for reasons surpassing understanding. Whiteside didn’t play again before halftime, and he played only three minutes after it. He finished with five rebounds and had as many fouls (four) as points in a grand total of 15 minutes.
After Monday’s game Whiteside sat hunched in a chair in the visitors locker room at Wells Fargo Center. He had ice packs on both knees, watching game highlights of other people on his phone. He was frustrated that he had some “calls that didn’t go my way.” He said he talked to the guards on his team about that: “They just left a little early on some pick-and-rolls, and I got in some early foul trouble.”
“It happens,” Whiteside continued. “Them guys played great, and coach left them guys out there. Like I said, it’s a long series and it’s gonna be a different guy every game. Maybe it’s me next game. Maybe it’s not.”
Game 2 was not his game either. To this point, we’ve learned that the Heat can’t play Whiteside whether they lose big or win close. He’s a minus-7.5 for the first two games, per NBA.com/Stats. After Game 1, Spoelstra said benching Whiteside was “not necessarily an indictment” of his center. Before Game 2, he tried to deflect again.
“It’s not about him,” Spoelstra insisted.
Except it kinda is, and has been for a while.
It has not been a good season for Whiteside. Opponents shot 47 percent with him in the area, per NBA.com/Stats. For comparison, that’s about the same rate as Clint Capela but not quite as good as Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, and Al Horford. He was eighth in blocks per game at 1.74 during the regular season. That part wasn’t bad. But because of nagging injuries, Whiteside played in just 54 games this season, which was 23 off his pace from the year prior. That worked out to him being on the floor for nearly 1,200 fewer minutes, too. Along the way, Whiteside’s points, rebounds, and blocks per game all dipped from a year ago, as did his field goal percentage.
That is not the kind of return on investment that Pat Riley and the Heat hoped for when they signed him to a four-year max contract worth $98 million in the summer of 2016. After this season, Whiteside has two more years left on the deal that will pay him more than $25 million next season and about $27 million in 2019-20. While there were whispers around the league that Miami wouldn’t mind moving Whiteside and his bloated contract if they could find a potential taker, the center’s displeasure was closer to a full-throated scream.
After he returned from a strained left hip flexor that caused him to miss nine games in March, Whiteside was all but invisible—which is tough to do when you’re that tall and you have to duck under doorways. Over the last seven games of the season, Whiteside averaged 12.0 points, 9.1, rebounds and 2.1 blocks, but that wasn’t nearly as telling as the fact that he averaged only 21.3 minutes over that span. After he got just 20 minutes in an ugly loss to the Nets at home while the Heat were still jockeying for playoff position, Whiteside’s simmering frustration boiled over. He called his lack of playing time “annoying” and wondered why the Heat bothered to match up with opposing teams when “we got one of the best centers in the league. … A lot of teams don’t have a good center. They’re going to use their strength.”
He continued: “It’s bullshit. It’s really bullshit, man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center. Shit. That’s bullshit.”
Whiteside gets full marks for cursing four times in a 19-word rant, but he probably didn’t help himself by venting. When he was asked whether he questioned his future with the Heat, he couldn’t stop himself: “I don’t know,” Whiteside said. “Maybe.”
People around the Heat organization told me that things have been a touch awkward ever since. Part of that is owed to the passive-aggressive public remarks from both sides, but probably also a realization from Whiteside and the Heat—even if they would never openly admit it—that the fit isn’t great for either side. Whiteside complained about his minutes dropping, but his usage rate is up from last year. Not that it’s helped the Heat. They had a minus-2.4 net rating with him on the floor during the regular season, according to NBA.com/Stats. Among those who played more than 400 minutes, only Dion Waiters and Dwyane Wade were worse, but they played 24 and 33 fewer games, respectively. When Whiteside sat, the Heat had a plus-2 net rating.
During the first game against the Sixers, while Whiteside was atrophying on the bench, Wade could sense that his big man wasn’t thrilled with working an ass groove into his courtside seat and had a conversation with him. Wade said it’s “hard on a guy” who sees himself as the main man to sit there and not play as many minutes as he wants or expects to. The challenge, Wade counseled Whiteside, was for the center to not just settle for “postups and duck-ins,” and try to influence the game in other ways. Wade told Whiteside after Game 1 that if he could do that, he could “be a different player” and “dominate different” in Game 2. That obviously didn’t happen. Wade is a future Hall of Famer, but that was one weird pep talk. Asking Whiteside to suddenly change his game in the postseason so he could stay on the floor seems like an impossible request. He might as well have told Whiteside to grow gills so he could swim around in that giant fish tank he loves so much.
This isn’t a short-term problem for the Heat and Whiteside. As Spoelstra pointed out, Whiteside has been trying to polish his game and defend “shooting bigs and still find ways to impact our team positively at the rim.” So far, no luck. If Whiteside can’t presto-change himself into someone new, as Wade advised, that’s bad news for him and the organization, and it might keep the Heat where no one wants to be in the NBA: stuck in the middle.
“It’s not the first time that we’ve worked through this,” Spoelstra said.
No one would suggest that the Sixers are a better team without Embiid, but as everyone from J.J. Redick to Markelle Fultz to Brett Brown pointed out over the weekend, not having their massive franchise center meant they could try to push the pace more than they already do. That worked in the first game and failed in the second, but Whiteside acknowledged that the Sixers are “a different team without Embiid.” “I have to be more aggressive,” Whiteside admitted. Of course, it’s tough to be aggressive when sitting down instead of running the floor.
Even though Embiid sat out Game 2, he cleared the concussion protocol beforehand, and team sources told me he’s getting close to playing when the series swings to Miami for the next two games. (Judging by Embiid’s postgame profanity Monday, it seems like there’s a good chance of that happening.) The Sixers are probably excited about that—but maybe not as excited as Whiteside.
It’s more than a little ironic that Whiteside’s best chance to get more minutes in this series hinges on the return of a guy who has victimized him at various points on the floor and on social media. In theory, if Embiid returns, the Sixers will slow down a bit. Beyond that, he is a massive human and someone would have to guard him, or at least try. That could open up more playing time for Whiteside, who is also a massive human. The Heat used him to defend Embiidmore than any other player in three games this season. The results weren’t great, though. Embiid averaged 19 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and one block per game against the Heat this year. Perhaps more worrisome for Whiteside is the fact that Embiid also launched 5.3 3-point attempts per game versus Miami. That means that even if Embiid returns and Whiteside gets more minutes because Spoelstra doesn’t have many options to match up with the Sixers center, Whiteside would still have to step away from his comfort zone in the paint and do what the Heat have been begging him for all season: guard a big man who shoots from outside.
Not only that, but Whiteside would be facing a guy who likes to shoot his mouth off, too, and has already taken aim at the Heat center in the past. In October, Whiteside made a crack about how Embiid had played only 31 games in his first three years, at which point Embiid fired back that Whiteside should “keep caring about your stats and not your team success.” It seemed to sting Whitesideat least a little. And all of that happened because Embiid flambéed the Heat center in a preseason game and begged Spoelstra to take Whiteside out for his own good.
As embarrassing as that might have been for Whiteside, getting glued to the bench in the playoffs by his own coach (and his own play) when he’s the team’s most expensive player has to be a bigger indignity. Who would have thought that, two years after getting max money, a pending matchup against Embiid might determine his future with the Heat? To borrow from Ric Flair, if you want to be the franchise center, you have to beat the franchise center.