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    Hawks at heat

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    lethalweapon3

     

    heat center trying to read the Hawks’ pick-and-roll scheme.

     

    The Miami heat have no reason to mess around. Winning either of two back-to-back games against our Atlanta Hawks, beginning tonight with the good guys down in South Beach (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA) before returning to play here, or another loss by the Pistons, would be enough to secure a playoff spot for just the second time in the four seasons since Mr. Not One Not Two skipped town.

    Everyone, aside from Do-It-Yourself Dion Waiters, is healthy enough to suit up for coach Erik Spoelstra, tonight and tomorrow. Following a Tank-busting overtime home loss to Brooklyn, Miami (41-36) has also had two full days off to rest, recalibrate and prepare for whatever Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has up his sleeve.

    So, why is the team’s highest paid player deciding that now is a good time to make himself the center of attention?

    “Why we matching up?”, notoriously brooding big-man Hassan Whiteside complained to media outlets, following Saturday’s 110-109 loss to the Nets at AmericanAirlines Arena, when Coach Spo countered Coach Kenny’s small-ball lineups with one of his own.

    “We got one of the best centers in the league,” Whiteside asserted to the postgame microphones, quite self-assuredly in third person before again begging the question, “Why we matching up? A lot of teams don’t have a good center. They’re going to use their strength. It’s bull(Shinola!). It’s really bull(pucky!), man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center. (Shucks!). That’s bull(chips!).”

    Whiteside had returned to action in just his second game after missing most of March with a strained hip, and Spoelstra was already being cautious by restricting him to under 20 minutes in the prior game. But if Hassan sincerely wanted to be in the Nets game at crunch time, he didn’t help matters by calling for a sub just under five minutes into the start of the game.

    Instead of Whiteside, who sat through the final quarter plus OT on Saturday, and rookie Bam Adebayo (DNP-ankle, but available today) Coach Spo relied on his floor-spacing Fabio, Kelly Olynyk, to relieve James Johnson at the 5-spot. That irritated Whiteside enough to disrespect his head coach’s “authoritah.”

    “I don’t know if it’s because I was on a minutes restriction,” Whiteside continued, characteristically digging himself a deeper hole. “The minutes have been like that all year.” When queried whether this issue made him question his future with the heat, Hassan (two more seasons guaranteed for $51.5 million) couldn’t resist chomping on the bait. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

    This is no way to head into April, as your team sizes itself up for one of Boston, Cleveland or Toronto in the first round. Before Whiteside could infest the rest of the locker room with his ball-so-hard attitude, Miami wanted to fine him. Along with the undisclosed payment from Whiteside came a begrudging apology.

    “…I could have handled it different,” Whiteside explained to the Palm Beach Post and the Miami Herald after practice on Monday. “But I got so caught up in wanting to get that win. I get real competitive,” he added, perhaps confusing impetuousness with competitiveness. “I really want to be out there. But I just trust coach’s decision.”

    Spoelstra tried to put a nice face on the whole ordeal with a bulleted response on Monday. “We’re going to help him continue to learn how to be a better professional, how to be a better leader in this locker room, how to be a better teammate and, ultimately, how to be a better winner.”

    Adding levity to the PowerPoint he conveyed to Whiteside, Coach Spo quipped, “If guys want to throw a few eggs at my car after the game, or T.P. [toilet paper] my house, that’s actually a better way to deal with it than speaking to all of you [in the lamestream media] about their frustrations.”

    All’s well that ends well in South Beach. That is, so long as tonight’s game ends well for the home team. Even with the levied fine, Miami can expect to endure more moody-blues if they fail to clinch tonight, and if Whiteside is on the bench at any time that the Hawks’ Miles Plumlee is ballin’ outta control.

    One of the teams that couldn’t use a decent center right now is Atlanta. Dewayne Dedmon isn’t just getting his double-doubles (#14 versus Orlando on Sunday, shooting 3-for-7 on threes, five double-doubs in his past seven games) by parking himself around the post and demanding the rock.

    As sketchy as the Hawks’ overall offensive efficiency can be (99.8 March O-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA) with so many moving parts, it improves when Dedmon’s paired with John Collins, whose surefire 58.5 FG% (6th in NBA) is presently the best shot accuracy by an NBA rookie since Otis Thorpe in 1984-85.

    Collins and Dedmon with the standard starting backcourt (Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schröder) produced a positive +8.1 Net Rating (109.9 O-Rating) in 118 minutes together. Replacing Dedmon and Collins with Ersan Ilyasova and the lumbering Plumlee, Atlanta’s efficiencies plummeted to minus-7.0 Net and 100.2 O-Ratings, in thrice the floor time (352 minutes). Hopefully, Hassan is taking notes when he’s not in the game.

    The struggles for Whiteside (career-highs of 19.9 points, 16.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals per-36; 25.6 MPG, lowest since his magical renaissance in 2014-15; 54.4 2FG%, lowest since 2011-12) beyond the boxscore is exemplary of Today’s NBA, where the Howards and Drummonds of the world are having a hard time coping with their growing disutility.

    The seven-footer blessed with a 7-foot-7 wingspan aches to dominate with his post-up game, at a time when the number-crunchers suggest that even a decent day exploiting mismatches around the rim can prove to be under-efficient for the larger team offense. Miami has a tepid 104.6 O-Rating (19th in NBA; up to 109.1 and 11th since the Break, mostly without Whiteside available) and moves up-and-down the court with a bottom-five pace (97.6 possessions per-48, 26th in NBA; up to 17th since the Break).

    It wasn’t like there was some behemoth tempering the heat while Whiteside looked on. It was Brooklyn’s swingmen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, flummoxing Miami counterparts Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow. Relying on the pick-and-roll, featuring James Johnson in tandem with Goran Dragic in the fourth quarter, helped Miami narrow the gap and force overtime in the first place.

    Winslow sunk a three-pointer to give Miami a 37-26 lead on the Nets early in the second quarter. Tellingly, Miami didn’t convert on another one for the remainder of Saturday’s contest (0-for-7 3FGs, after starting out 7-for-10), including OT. Failing to LTMFF won’t fly if they expect to make any pleasant noise in the playoffs, and Spoelstra recognizes Whiteside can’t help in that department.

    Ellington went full Ogunbowale on the Dennis Schröder-less Hawks when they last visited Miami, saving the Whiteside-less heat’s bacon by contributing 19 second-quarter points while nailing 6 of 8 threes in a 104-93 win. But it wasn’t exactly Wayne’s World when the heat (again without Whiteside; also missing Goran Dragic, James Johnson, and Winslow) played in Atlanta two months later.

    Ellington ran into foul trouble and shot just 1-for-6 from the field, and the shorthanded heat (7-for-25 3FGs) proved to be no match for Schröder and Taurean Prince, the swingman who played less like a frog (team-highs of 24 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, a DiVincenzoan 4-for-7 3FGs) in his Hawks’ 110-104 victory. Despite 7 critical turnovers in the October meeting, Prince balanced things out with a game-high three steals plus team-high scoring (20 points) in that contest as well.

    Vital to victory for Miami, today and tomorrow against Atlanta (22-55), will be clipping the Hawks’ wings (including Prince and Tyler Dorsey, whose 19 bench points helped subdue the Magic on Sunday) while finding some consistent offensive attack at the same position. Richardson, Ellington Tyler Johnson and the returning Dwyane Wade shot a combined 13-for-38 from the field against the Nets.

    Another player who knows a thing or two about airing his grievances through the media, Dragic (2 assists in 39 minutes, 4 TOs vs. BRK; DNP @ ATL on Dec. 18) must be a better facilitator, finding shooters and passers in position to finish perimeter plays off his drives. Miami is 5-2 when Dragic (25.5 assist%, lowest in his Miami-era) registers 8 or more assists. But the fact that this sample represents less than a tenth of the first-time All-Star’s 72 appearances is the rub, Whiteside aside.

    It’s on the heat to put hard-charging Detroit firmly in the rear-view mirror, and build positive momentum toward the playoff’s opening round, preferably in a way that better incorporates Whiteside as he returns to full health. Spoelstra will need all the time he can to craft a winning strategy against far more arduous opponents than the Hawks. He can’t be wasting precious time scrubbing breakfast off his car.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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