NEW YORK — To understand how the Heat have handled Hassan Whiteside behind the scenes, you have to go all the way back to his first-career triple-double in his first season with the organization.
A 25-year-old Whiteside recorded 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in a win over the Bulls on Jan. 25, 2015.
For any player, that’s worth a celebration. For a player like Whiteside — who had never earned a consistent spot in the NBA and had spent the first few years of his NBA career playing overseas and bouncing around the D-League — that triple-double was worth national headlines.
But in the Heat’s eyes, Whiteside could have played better in that game.
“Alonzo [Mourning] said I should have had 17 blocks,” Whiteside said shaking his head. “Everybody on the Heat staff is hard on me. Everybody.”
How about coach Erik Spoelstra?
“[Erik] is extremely hard on me,” Whiteside said, “telling me just everything I can do better. Just very critical of my game and things like that.”
That kind of tough love now seems like it’s getting through to Whiteside. The Heat’s $98 million center is averaging 16.7 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 18 games since the All-Star break, and he’ll look to continue his strong play when Miami (37-38) hosts New York (28-47) on Friday.
Those numbers don’t seem out of the ordinary for Whiteside, but it’s his consistent effort and positive mental approach that has opened the eyes of his teammates and coaches. It’s the fact that Whiteside is now comfortable playing through pain, as he’s played the past four games with a stitched-up right hand and the past three games with a sprained left ankle.
“He really cares about the guys in the locker room,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside. “That’s one of the most powerful things I’ve seen as a coach. It’s been so humbling and powerful to see. Hassan is, maybe for the first time in his career, playing more for the guys next to him than he is for himself.”
All of this has translated into a more reliable Whiteside. He’s recorded a double-double in 15 of his past 17 games, and ranks fifth in the NBA with 51 double-doubles this season behind just James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert.
But this is what the box score doesn’t show: Whiteside has been a better screen-setter a more effective pick-and-roll defender during this recent stretch.
“It’s way different,” Goran Dragic said of Whiteside’s recent play. “Not even from last year, but even the last two months. He’s doing those small things that really matter for the team, especially how he’s defending pick-and-rolls and doing those little things that maybe you don’t see in the stats.”
Maybe the most important thing to come out of this is that Whiteside has been rewarded for this new approach. He was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week earlier this month, and he just made the first game-winning buzzer-beater of his NBA career to lift the Heat past the Pistons on Tuesday.
After tipping in the game-winner, Whiteside received a text from former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade.
“He was happy for me,” Whiteside said of Wade. “It means a lot, man. He really cares.”
The Heat may be hard on Whiteside, but he’s starting to realize the entire organization cares about him. And he now realizes the Heat’s way may be the right way.
“This is not an organization that just anybody can play for,” Whiteside said. “They got a way and their way works.”