OAKLAND, Calif. — The Heat played the final 22 minutes and 47 seconds of Monday’s loss to the Warriors without center Hassan Whiteside.
Not because Whiteside was injured or in foul trouble. Instead, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra classified it as a “coach’s decision” after one of Whiteside’s worst performances since becoming a max contract player in the summer of 2016.
“It’s a coach’s decision,” Spoelstra said Monday night after Miami’s loss to Golden State on the second night of a back-to-back set, with the Heat (4-6) moving on to a Wednesday matchup against the Suns on the fourth stop of their six-game trip. “That’s what it really came down to. It’s nothing bigger, more than that, this is one game. He understands how important he is to our ballclub, to play at high level, high energy level.”
Whiteside struggled throughout the game, finishing just three points on 1-of-9 shooting and six rebounds in 16 minutes before being pulled from the game early in the third quarter for rookie Bam Adebayo. It ended Whiteside’s string of 28 consecutive games with double-digit points that began after he tallied two points in a win over Atlanta on Feb. 24.
The difference is that Whiteside was praised after his two-point performance against the Hawks because Miami outscored Atlanta by 20 points when he was on the court in that game. On Monday against the Warriors, the Heat were outscored by 15 with Whiteside playing.
“I mean it’s tough,” Dragic said of playing without Whiteside in the second half. “He’s our main player. He’s protecting the paint. He’s getting offensive rebounds, blocked shots. But, we’re going to play with whoever we’ve got. … It’s tough. But you have so many games in this league and sometimes back-to-backs, sometimes your body doesn’t listen to you. But we have full confidence Hassan is going to be back and he’s going to be his old self again.”
There was one sequence Monday that really angered Spoelstra and led to Whiteside’s benching. With Whiteside arguing an offensive foul call, center Zaza Pachulia ran past him for a layup for two of the Warriors’ 26 fast-break points.
Spoelstra pulled Whiteside from the game 14 seconds later with the Heat trailing 54-39 and 10:47 to go in the third quarter. The 28-year-old remained on the bench for the rest of the game and looked disinterested and disengaged while watching on.
Whiteside admitted he messed up on the play after the loss.
“I made a mistake, man, Zaza got behind me,” he said. “I was really in here at halftime contemplating like, ‘Let’s get ’em this half. I’m going to really come out and dominate the second half.'”
But after admitting to his mistake, Whiteside seemed confused when asked why he spent the final 23 minutes of Monday’s game on the bench.
“Coach sat me down for the rest of the game,” Whiteside said. “I guess he thought it was better if I didn’t come back in. I don’t know. I really don’t know. … I don’t really know. I mean, coach, playing 16 minutes, I guess that’s what he wanted me to play.”
Did Spoelstra talk to Whiteside after the benching? Not immediately after the game.
“I haven’t talked to Spo,” Whiteside said as he got ready to leave Oracle Arena. “Last game, I played 31 minutes. I thought I played great yesterday. Today I played 16 minutes, so I really don’t know what I’m going to play in Phoenix.”
But Whiteside’s teammates do know one thing — he needs to be the Heat’s best player for the team to have success.
“Minutes is earned, man. Minutes is earned on this team,” forward James Johnson said, who is one of the Heat’s three team captains along with Udonis Haslem and Dragic. “And we had our talk as we should, as a team and as the three captains that we are. And he gets it, man. I know he gets it. He’s the most athletic guy I know. He’s the heart of our team and he’s also the best big man in the league to me. I don’t care what nobody says. That’s just my opinion.”
Haslem echoed Johnson’s statement.
“We’re not disappointed, man,” Haslem said of Whiteside. “It’s not supposed to be easy. None of this is supposed to be easy, man. If you want to be a champion in this league, it’s not going to be easy. So everybody’s path is different. Hassan is still growing, you know what I’m saying. He’s still learning, he’s still growing, he’s still understanding what we expect from him. Every night you’re not going to have it in this league, so what we just need from Hassan is his energy. We feed off that and he’s our best player. We’re going to live and die with him. We’re going to ride with him, we’re going to stick behind him and we’re going to encourage him. We expect him to do the same for us.”
Monday wasn’t the first time Whiteside has been benched during his Heat career.
Spoelstra also pulled him in the middle of a loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland last season on Dec. 9, 2016. Whiteside was pulled from that game with 9:18 remaining in the third quarter and did not return until the start of the fourth quarter.
“Just to change the energy,” Spoelstra said back in December of pulling Whiteside in that game. “Just wanted some more energy, some more life on the glass, defending pick-and-rolls. That was a coaching decision. … It happens in this league. This league is for competitors only. It’s great competitive matchups every single night. We have a lot of guys out, so that’s a big responsibility for him. He’s starting to understand what that actually means.”
Whiteside has made progress in this area. But Monday’s benching was a sign that he’s still not where the Heat need him to be yet.
“We talk and we tell him,” Dragic said when asked about Whiteside’s attitude in games that he struggles in. “I think that’s good because it stays inside the locker room and he knows how much we need him, how much we rely on him. Sometimes you just don’t have it. And he admitted ‘Hey guys, I let you down.’ Look, we’re here to help him. He’s in on our team. He’s our player. We love him and this is the only thing that matters.”