Life without Hassan Whiteside will continue for Heat on Saturday vs. Celtics, as Miami tries to find defensive identity

MIAMI — Life without Hassan Whiteside will continue for the Miami Heat.

Whiteside will miss his fourth consecutive game Saturday against the Celtics (3-2) with a bone bruise in his left knee. Miami has recorded a 2-1 record without its starting center.

While Whiteside has been ruled out for Saturday’s contest, he is making progress. For the first time since the injury, he was on the practice court going through basketball drills in front of reporters Friday.

“We’re still just treating him day-to-day,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, who added that Whiteside was able to do some conditioning and some court work Friday. “We’re not planning on trying to fast track him to play tomorrow. … He’s starting to feel better.”

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, center, looks on from the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

It’s been a struggle for the Heat (2-2) on the defensive end without Whiteside, who has already missed three of the first four games of the season. Entering Friday’s slate of games, Miami ranks 23rd out of 30 teams with a defensive rating of 107.7.

The season is still very young. But to put that number into perspective, the Heat has averaged a defensive rating of 101.8 in Spoelstra’s previous nine seasons as head coach.

“[Whiteside is] definitely a tough person to emulate,” said Heat center Kelly Olynyk, who is averaging 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists this season. “You can’t really emulate his size and length under the basket, rolling and stuff. We’ve just got to play together. We’ve got to be on a string defensively, helping each other, communicating and talking. We’ve just got to play as a team. And it’s got to be a team effort on every single play — stop the ball, rebound the ball and then translate that into the offensive end.”

You can blame Whiteside’s injury for some of the early-season struggles on the defensive end. Without its top rim protector and rebounder, Miami is allowing the fifth-most paint points in the league at 50.0 per game and the most second-chance points in the NBA at 18.5 per game this season.

“We pride ourselves on being a physical defensive team,” Spoelstra said of the second-chance points Miami has allowed. “That’s having the front end of your defense physical with a presence and finishing our defense with physical rebounds and loose balls. We have not done that to our standards.”

Miami started 23-year-old Jordan Mickey at center in the first two games Whiteside missed — a win over the Pacers on Oct. 21 and a win over the Hawks on Oct. 23. But the Heat went with 20-year-old rookie Bam Adebayo as their starting center in Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs.

Those changes could continue until Whiteside returns, as Spoelstra said he will pick his starting center based on the matchup each game. With a Saturday return already ruled out, Monday’s home game against the Timberwolves will be the next opportunity for Whiteside to get back on the court.

But the Heat won’t use Whiteside’s injury as an excuse for their defensive struggles. And Spoelstra is quick to point out that Miami also struggled defensively in its only game with Whiteside, as the Heat allowed 116 points on 47.8 percent shooting in their season-opening loss to the Magic.

“We have to be better as a collective group, no question about it,” Spoelstra said of the Heat’s defense. “Our overall commitment to doing the tough things, the small things that are needed defensively to defend in this modern NBA. We have to be so much more committed to that. Our guys understand that with or without Hassan. Even when we had him in game one, we weren’t defending how we want to.”

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