After talk with Spoelstra, Whiteside shined vs. Mavericks. Now the challenge is for Whiteside to do it again and again

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside dunks the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Miami. The Kings defeated the Heat 89-88. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

CLEVELAND – Maybe all it took was a conversation with Erik Spoelstra. Or maybe it was the fact the Heat were facing an undersized Mavericks team that starts Dirk Nowitzki at center.

Or maybe it was something else.

Whatever it was, Hassan Whiteside looked like the dominant player the Heat need him to be in Monday’s win over the Mavericks. Whiteside finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and one block.

The Heat’s $98 million center has had a few of these kind of performances this season, as he’s scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in nine games. But the challenge for Whiteside has always been to produce at this level consistently, as he’s also finished with 10 points or less in 10 games.

“Look, Hassan has had some great moments in the last three, four weeks, since he came back,” Spoelstra said, as the fourth-seeded Heat move on to Wednesday’s game against the third-seeded Cavaliers in Cleveland. “He’s had some games like this where he really put his fingerprints on the competition to impact winning. You felt his presence from the very get-go [in Dallas]. It’s all about now the consistency night in and night out.”

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While Spoelstra downplayed his conversation with the 28-year-old that took place before Monday’s game, the player-coach meeting seemed to resonate with Whiteside.

“It was good, man,” Whiteside said. “You know me and coach Spo talked. We talked for a really long time. It was like an hour talk. I think it was great, man. It was a really great talk between us and we both came better out of it.”

More importantly, the conversation stuck with Whiteside even after it was over.

“I sat on it. I slept on it. And I thought about it a whole lot,” he said.

What was Whiteside’s takeaway from his talk with Spoelstra?

“Our communication, me being more vocal, talking to my teammates more and just being more of a leader,” Whiteside said. “I had never been like a rah-rah guy, but I’m going to try to be more of a leader for the team and just talk to guys more, because they respect what I say and they see that.”

The Heat expect more from Whiteside than he’s given them this season. He’s averaging 14.6 points and 11.9 rebounds, down from the stat line of 17.0 points and 14.1 rebounds he averaged last season.

But according to Whiteside, the only thing that’s changed from last season is his role. He’s averaging 25.9 minutes this season, down from the 32.6 minutes he played per game last season.

“I mean, my numbers are the same at it was per-36 or per-32 or whatever you guys run it by, per minute it’s the same,” Whiteside said. “Nothing has changed. Run the numbers.”

Whiteside is right. In fact, his numbers are better this season as he’s averaging 20.2 points and 16.5 rebounds per 36 minutes compared to 18.7 points and 15.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season.

With the emergence of big men Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk, who are both in their first season with Miami, some have questioned whether Whiteside is as valuable to the Heat as he once was with the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaching. After all, Whiteside has not played in the fourth quarter in 11 of his 32 games this season, a surprising number for a player on a max contract.

But the Heat know they are better when an engaged Whiteside is on the court. Miami has posted an impressive 101.5 defensive rating when Whiteside plays this season, which is the best on the team among the Heat’s rotation players.

“I want to be that guy,” Whiteside said. “I know the numbers are better when I’m on the court defensively. I want to be that guy.”

To be that guy, Whiteside has to be a consistent force and continue to take steps forward. That’s the challenge, and it always has been.

“He was great for us,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said of Whiteside’s performance against the Mavericks. “He was defensively awesome, rebounding, scoring points. He was dominating the game. And we like it when he’s doing it like that.”

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