MIAMI – Goran Dragic was ready for the big man to return.
“The last three days I was asking him, ‘Whitey when you coming back? When you coming back?’” the Heat’s point guard said late Wednesday after a 97-91 victory over the Bulls.
“It was nice to have him out there.”
“Whitey” – Dragic’s nickname for center Hassan Whiteside – helped Miami snap a three-game losing streak by dominating early before “hitting a wall.”
Running on adrenaline early after missing five games with a bone bruise in his left knee, Whiteside had nine rebounds in the first quarter, a double-double with 3½ remaining in the first half and finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds.
“I thought his first seven minutes were outstanding,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “His rebounds, he was grabbing those about 12 feet above the floor. His defense, communication, was great. His energy was great. He was giving us a presence in the paint and then I think he hit the wall after that.”
Whiteside had not had substantive full court work since the injury occurred opening night in Orlando when he bumped knees with Magic center Nikola Vucevic. That’s two weeks with not much more than conditioning and shooting on his own.
So just getting on the court and banging down low, took some getting used to.
“It was different, because it had been such a long time since I played five-on-five,” Whiteside said. “But I felt like I contributed in the best I would out there.”
Whiteside was on a minutes restriction and wound up playing 26:22. He logged 10 minutes in the first quarter and returned for about seven in the second. He looked winded in the second half and was done for the night after coming out with 2:31 remaining in the third quarter.
“I expected that to come, because I’ve just been running in the pool, so it’s hard to duplicate an actual NBA game,” Whiteside said.
Which is one reason the Heat’s decision to fly early to Denver on Thursday to allow them to get in a practice should be beneficial for the team and Whiteside. The Heat (3-4) start a six-game road trip at 9 p.m. Friday against the Nuggets (4-4) and Whiteside will be tested playing in Denver’s high altitude, a mile above sea level.
Whiteside already has missed as many games as he did all last season and the Heat understand they need their eraser and last line of defense to have a successful season. Healthy, he can be an All-Star level player as he showed in the one full game he played this season with 26 points and 22 rebounds against the Magic.
Miami’s defense suffered without Whiteside, allowing an average of 107.8 points per game, including 48.4 points in the paint in the five games. That effort wasn’t much better with Whiteside in the lineup in the opener, but the inefficiency continued for much of the time he sat out.
The Heat were much better against the Bulls on Wednesday surrendering a season-low 91 points and 40 in the paint.
“It’s huge when he’s on the floor,” Dragic said. “It changes completely. It’s a different dimension of the game.”
Dion Waiters noticed right away the difference when Whiteside is in the middle.
“It’s a game changer,” Waiters said. “If you got a guy back there like that, a lot of times guards got to think. I saw a couple guard hesitate just because of his presence and that’s huge for us. Once he gets his wind and gets back to the swing of things and we keep coming around and we keep building off this and we keep getting better one game at a time. …
“We just got to try to continue to keep building and move forward.”
Now, the Heat will be tested in many ways. Miami’s road trip is the longest of the season. The team will be away from home for 10 full days and cover 7,311 miles. Every team it plays enters Friday’s games at least .500.
The Heat will go two full weeks without playing a home game.
“I think it’s good for our team right now,” Spoelstra said. “I think we need to be tested emotionally. I think we need to be tested from the neck up. There’s no better way than going yonder for a few weeks.”