Published On: Sat, Apr 21st, 2018

Whiteside needs to prove he still cares, even if that means personal sacrifice

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“Coach wants me to just be in the corner and set picks. That’s what he wants. I’ve just got to trust it.”

That’s what embattled and disgruntled big man Hassan Whiteside told the press after the Miami Heat‘s Game 3 defeat against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, per the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson.

It’s difficult to determine whether Whiteside genuinely meant what he said or if he suggested it with the hope someone would interject to say it’s actually the veteran coach who should be more trusting of his center.

Against Philadelphia, Whiteside’s numbers have been disastrous through three outings – the first two without the presence of Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid. So far, the 28-year-old has averaged just 3.7 points, four rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in just under 14 minutes per game.

When the Heat have been in the position to make a late push, Whiteside has found himself benched. His only fourth-quarter appearance this series was a Game 3 blip: He entered with 10:29 on the clock, exited just under two minutes later, and didn’t return. The Heat were minus-3 during that brief stretch.

With his infrequent shot attempts missing the mark and his inability to hang defensively with the Sixers’ rangy, athletic frontcourt becoming painfully apparent, Whiteside should probably heed Spoelstra’s game plan. If not for his coach, then for the sake of his teammates.

There are plenty of opportunities for Whiteside to contribute without being the focal point of a retrograde offense in which his teammates dump the ball down to him in the post. To do so, however, he’s going to have to commit himself to doing the dirty work, which doesn’t show up in the boxscore but often manifests itself in the win column.

Among all centers with at least 10 minutes of playoff action so far, Whiteside ranks 25th out of 33 with 2.6 screen assists per 36 minutes, well behind the rate of his backup, rookie Bam Adebayo (5.6), and also trailing Heat forward James Johnson (3.1). Whether screening on- or off-ball, Whiteside has to know that leveraging his 7-foot, 265-pound body to free up the likes of Goran Dragic, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Johnson into space will help create easier scoring opportunities for all, including himself when the defense aggressively traps and subsequently allows Whiteside to roll relatively unencumbered to the hoop.

For a player of his size, Whiteside’s ineffective screens are a troubling continuation of a season-long riff with the team’s ball-handlers, but it’s still just one symptom of his overall malaise on either end of the floor. Whiteside’s lackadaisical defense has produced just one deflection in 41 minutes. His passivity as a defender doesn’t align with the Heat’s overall tenacity; even with Whiteside dragging his feet through 14 minutes per game, Miami still ranks fifth among all playoff teams with 18.3 deflections per game.

The other signifiers of hustle tell a similar story. On a per-minute basis, Whiteside ranks sixth on the Heat in box outs and seventh in loose balls recovered.

Where is the Whiteside who fought his way out of the basketball wilderness in 2014 after two years spent toiling in the then-D-League, China, and Lebanon? Where is the player who refined that tenacious approach to lead the league with 3.7 blocks per game in 2015-16 and 14.1 rebounds per game last season?

It might be too late to make a difference at this point. While stealing Game 2 in Philadelphia was a crucial win toward extending their season, the Heat gave the homecourt advantage right back with Game 3’s dispiriting 128-108 loss. With Embiid now back and rounding into form after a month-long absence, momentum does not favor Miami.

To be sure, the success and failings of the Heat are not solely the burden of any one player; in any case, they now trail 2-1 in the series and their season could be over as early as Tuesday evening. It’s time to put pride aside. If that means setting screens and standing in the corner, Whiteside just may have to swallow his pride and trust Spoelstra’s process.

At this late juncture, there’s no time for anyone – not Spoelstra, and not Whiteside with his $23.8-million contract – to worry about bruised egos or salary cap optics. Even for the lower-seeded Heat, everything will look far worse if this series ends in defeat, but no one will bear as much of the blame and ridicule as Whiteside. If nothing else, the mercurial big needs to prove that he still gives a damn, or the worse is very much still to come.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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