Heat center Hassan Whiteside tries to keep up pace after missing nine games

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside grabs a defensive rebound in front of Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez during the first half of the Heat’s victory Thursday in Miami. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

MIAMI – Hassan Whiteside returned to a slightly different team after missing nine games.

The Heat were averaging 102.0 points per game when Whiteside strained his left hip flexor during shootaround on March 10. During the nine games Whiteside missed, that average spiked to 112.3 per game, with Miami looking as comfortable as it has all season playing at a quicker pace.

Whiteside, who played 19:28 on Thursday, must have felt like was returning to a different team.

“Those guy were flying around,” said the 7-foot center. “But it took me awhile to get acclimated. My wind felt straight, it’s just those guys were moving around. It’s just getting back used to it, getting back into a rhythm of just making shots, just that aspect of it.

“I felt good but I haven’t touched a ball in about three weeks. I made a couple of shots. I missed a couple. Just get back into the rhythm, knock the rust off, get back to playing well.”

Whiteside finished eight points on 3-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks during Miami’s 103-92 victory over the Bulls. Although coach Erik Spoelstra said his big man’s conditioning “was a little bit better than I anticipated,” Whiteside did appear to be a bit gassed at one point in the second quarter.

“He’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes and I thought he was able to play with the pace that we’re playing at,” Spoelstra said. “He had four assists. … So we were able to play some offense through him. He made some nice easy plays on handoffs. It’s just good to have him back out there. He clearly gives us something different.”

Whiteside’s assists equaled a season and career high, which he set Dec. 30 in Orlando.

“I was just trying to play-make and get them guys going because I wasn’t making shots,” he said. “Passes always look good when they make them.”

Spoelstra immediately inserted Whiteside back into the starting lineup, a spot that Bam Adebayo held for the first eight games Whiteside missed before Jordan Mickey made a rare start Tuesday against Cleveland with Adebayo nursing a sprained ankle.

A big reason is to get Whiteside used to playing at the faster pace. Including Thursday, he will have just seven games before the playoffs start.

“Spo told me ‘G, run, run make sure Whiteside runs with you,’” point guard Goran Dragic said. “So, I was kind of trying to push it a little bit. H, he was running with us. Of course, he was a little bit tired. He didn’t play for a while. But you know it’s nice to have him back and he’s going to continue to get better physically and we need him.”

Whether that pace continues when the playoffs start in two weeks remain to be seen. Typically the game slows down in the postseason, becomes more physical. Either way, the Heat will need Whiteside at his best, especially defensively where he can protect the rim and block shots, if they want to advance.

“I thought he was very aggressive,” Dwyane Wade said. “He had his shots, he ran up and down the floor a lot. He did great screening to get our guards where they needed to get to. I like the energy he played with.

“When he plays a few more games, he’s going to get that rhythm back where he can do more things offensively. He can get a little bit more explosion back. So, it’s good to get him back.”

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