Heat know getting Hassan Whiteside back on track is ‘a game-changer.’ But is it possible against Sixers defense?

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid,, right, drives to the basket as Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, left, defends during the first half of Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI — Hassan Whiteside usually points to his statistics as proof of his production. But that has stopped in this first-round playoff series.

That’s because there aren’t impressive numbers to point to. The Heat’s $98 million center is averaging 3.7 points on 2.3 shot attempts, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 13.6 minutes through the first three games of the playoffs.

As expected, that level of production from the Heat’s highest-paid player has drawn criticism with Miami down 2-1 in its series against Philadelphia. But Whiteside isn’t listening.

“I just blur all that out,” Whiteside said after Friday’s practice, with the Heat set to host the Sixers in Game 4 on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. “Coach wants me to be more of a spacer. It can be your series, it can be your game. But it’s just the way we match up against them. I’m just trying to do the best thing for the team. I don’t get caught up in the guys that can’t do my job and talk about my job.”

But the guys who can do Whiteside’s job — his teammates — understand how important it is for him to become a bigger part of the series, especially with Philadelphia All-Star center Joel Embiid back from injury. Whiteside averaged 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the regular season.

“He’s such an important part of our team and how successful we can be,” Heat guard Tyler Johnson said. “Obviously you feel for somebody when they’re not playing the way they want to be playing. It’s not a situation where we’re feeling bad for him because we don’t want him to feel bad for himself. We know what he’s capable of and that’s the standard we continue to hold him to.

“As soon as it clicks, he’s a game-changer for our team. You have to [encourage him]. When a guy is going through something, what are you going to do? Put more pressure on him or continue to kick somebody when they’re going through something? It seems counterproductive. For us, it’s to continue to encourage him. He’s a guy that can break this series wide open with the things he’s capable of doing because nobody else is capable of doing some of the things he’s capable of doing.”

After taking one shot and scoring five points in just 13 minutes of the Heat’s 128-108 Game 3 loss to Philadelphia on Thursday, Whiteside blamed his diminished numbers on Miami’s scheme during his postgame interview.

“It’s just different, man,” he said Thursday night. “I feel like our offense is a lot different. I’m not as involved in as many dribble hand-offs as I was and post-ups as I was in the regular season. That’s what coach wants. Coach wants me to just be in the corner and set picks. That’s what he wants. I’ve just got to trust it.”

When asked Friday if Whiteside’s comment was accurate, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t want to pump more life into the storyline.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Spoelstra said. “This is competition, so it’s going to bring out a lot of narratives. One way or another, we’re all going to have to face the competition again tomorrow. All of that really at this point is just a narrative that’s out there. Our focus is on the task at hand, playing our best basketball for 48 minutes.”

A deeper look at Whiteside’s playoff numbers show his offensive opportunities are down from the regular season. Not only are his minutes down from 25.3 in the regular season to 13.6 in the playoffs, but his touches are down from 33.7 per game to 14.7, his post-ups are down from 4.4 per game to 0.7 and his paint touches are down from 9.1 to 5.3.

Some of that has to do with the foul trouble Whiteside has battled through in the series, but it also has something to do with the way the Sixers have packed the paint.

“They’re just packing the paint, throwing four, sometimes five guys in there,” Johnson said. “There’s always three in the paint. They’re pulling their low guy, so every time [Whiteside is] going to roll, he’s met with two or three people. It’s not going to be easy to get the lobs we’re accustomed to getting throughout the year.”

Is there a point when Whiteside just needs to demand the ball?

“We definitely want him to be more assertive,” Johnson said. “In this series, with the way they pack guys into the paint, it’s going to be a little bit difficult to throw the ball down low and for him to go to work. They got a bunch of people and they continue to throw waves and waves at him. I don’t think it’s a matter of him going in the block and demanding the basketball.”

Spoelstra said after Thursday’s loss that part of his job in between Games 3 and 4 would be to “figure out how [Whiteside] can get to his strengths and be an impact player for us.” But there are only so many adjustments that can be made this late in the season.

“We’re not going to change the playbook, but certainly we’ll work to get Hassan active on both ends and where you feel him in the game,” Spoelstra said Friday. “Part of that is my job. We had a film session today and out here and we were working on that. He’s going to do his part and face the competition and embrace that. I love seeing players in these situations during the playoffs, managing things that aren’t necessarily going your way. These are great opportunities.”

But Whiteside is starting to accept that this series might not be set up for him to put up big numbers.

“It might just be this series,” he said. “D-Wade told me the other day, sometimes it’s other people’s games and sometimes it’s other people’s series. That’s just how we match up. Coach Spo, I’m doing the best for him and he’s happy. He’s got a great scheme.”

[Dwyane Wade on physical nature of Heat-Sixers series: ‘It’s the playoffs, baby, let it go’]

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