MIAMI – Hassan Whiteside promised a month ago he was done talking about Joel Embiid and Thursday he lived up to that promise.
Whiteside and the Heat open their first-round series against the Sixers Saturday in Philadelphia. And at some point when Embiid returns after having surgery two weeks ago to repair a fractured orbital bone, whether it’s Saturday or later in the series, the two big men will become the focus.
And not just because of their talent but also the bad blood that exists between the two.
“It’s all competition,” Whiteside said Thursday after the Heat met to watch film. “He started with me. I just like to do my talking on the court.”
After the two tangled during the final game of the regular season series Whiteside declared, “I’m not talking no more, no more talking. No more talking. 2018, when he talks, no more.”
Embiid accused Whiteside of a “dirty” play when Whiteside threw a forearm at Embiid’s back as the two bumped running up the floor. Embiid was assessed a personal foul while Whiteside was hit with a technical.
Embiid later said he would not “forget” the play.
“It will be fun, it’s good for the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said about the intense competition. “You don’t see too many physical, impactful centers playing nightly in this league. You will in this series.”
Spoelstra was asked if he would have to speak to Whiteside about keeping his emotions in check.
“Nah,” he said. “He’s gotten much better. This is not his first dance.”
Spoelstra is a fan of Embiid’s, having spent time with him last summer on the NBA sponsored Africa trip. He credited Embiid having an injury-free season along with his being a great competitor for his success.
Whiteside sees another reason.
“He gets 20 shots, he gets 20 shots a night,” Whiteside said. “Not too many teams draw up that many shots for their centers. They basically let him get 20 shots off.”
Embiid averages 16.8 shots.
Embiid was a first-time All-Star this season who is on the verge of making the first or second All-NBA team. He got the better of Whiteside in two of their three head-to-head matchups (Embiid missed the second game of the series, one in which the Sixers rallied from a 24-point third-quarter deficit for a two-point win).
In three head-to-head meetings Embiid is averaging 19.0 points and 8.7 rebounds, Whiteside is averaging 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. The teams split the four-game season series but the Heat won 2-of-3 in which both centers played.
“Embiid is one of the best young centers in the game and Hassan loves the matchup and I think Embiid does as well,” Dwyane Wade said. “If you like seeing big men play, two different styles but love to play against each other, it’s a great series, hopefully, to watch.”
Embiid’s season was a breakthrough after playing just 31 games in his first three years, none in his first two years because of multiple foot and knee injuries. He averaged 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds in 63 games and was one of two players in the league along with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo to average at least 20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Embiid, though, could be limited. He missed the final eight games of the season after suffering a fractured orbital bone and a concussion from a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. He underwent surgery and is not expected to play in Game 1. When he returns, he will be wearing a protective face mask.
“I want to play but right now I feel like I’m not ready yet,” Embiid told reporters Wednesday. “It’s getting there. I’ve got to keep working every day. With the way it’s been progressing, I’m hopeful I’ll be back soon.”
Embiid went through shooting drills with the mask before Wednesday’s game. The Sixers crushed Milwaukee, 130-95, to secure the No. 3 spot.
The Heat are preparing to see Embiid, whether its Game 1 or later in the series.
“You have to,” Spoelstra said. “You have to be prepared for that.”