Hassan Whiteside and Joel Embiid are living mirror versions of each other’s lives as towering, muscle-bound shot-swatters with opposing dispositions. Whereas Embiid is generally a goofy, lovable court jester, Whiteside has cultivated an image as Miami’s Oscar The Grouch. He’s the saltiest $100-million-man in the NBA. Embiid’s prominence is swelling as Whiteside’s shrinks.
On Thursday, Embiid served as a defensive silver bullet in his Game 3 return and tilted the 76ers’ first-round series back in their favor. Whiteside was repeatedly stripped in post-up situations, committed bad fouls, looked sluggish, scored five points and lucked into a pair of rebounds in 13 minutes.
Afterward, Whiteside pulled the pin out of the live grenade in his pocket and continued his season-long implosion. Given his shoddy play, Eric Spoelstra’s favorite corner set to run for Whiteside in this series involves rightfully positioning him on the deep end of their bench. According to Whiteside, that’s the only time Spoelstra runs anything for him on the offensive end. Staying on brand after their 20-point loss to Philadelphia, Whiteside took aim at his coaches.
“It’s just different, man. I feel like our offense is a lot different,” Whiteside said after Miami dropped Game 3, per USA Today. “I’m not involved in as many dribble-handoffs as I was and post-ups as I was during the regular season. That’s what Coach wants. Coach wants me to just be in a corner and set picks. I mean, that’s what he wants so I’ve just got to trust it.”
Thus far in their first-round series, Whiteside has averaged 3.7 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes per contest. In four regular-season matchups against Philadelphia, Whiteside delivered 15.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and one steal per game. That includes a Feb. 3 matchup against Philadelphia where Whiteside played only 18 minutes due to a stomach bug. That night, Miami’s Platinum Group small-ball lineup came off the bench and nearly erased a 26-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
There was a viable excuse for Whiteside’s meager minutes prior to Embiid’s return. Philadelphia morphed into the NBA’s fastest-paced offense during its 16-game winning streak in the final month of the regular season. Whiteside operates best in grind-it-out situations. The 76ers opted to start Ersan Ilyasova at center in Game 2 to lure Whiteside outside the paint, and into the perimeter where he often wanders aimlessly.
Whiteside’s envy for Embiid was exacerbated by Philly’s young All-Star triumphantly returning and making him look more inadequate than Commodus confronting a masked General Maximus Meridius in the Roman Colosseum.
“They run enough plays for him [Embiid] that he’s going to get his numbers,” Whiteside said. “I don’t really get caught up in that. He lives a big-man’s dream. He gets the ball, he gets the post-ups, he posts up every other play and they pretty much run a lot of stuff through him and Ben Simmons.”
Unlike Embiid, Whiteside is a black hole offensively. He nearly doubled his assist rate this season to 6.9, but is still one of the NBA’s worst low-post facilitators. That assist rate is a third of Kelly Olynyk’s 18.9. Whiteside’s rudimentary low-post game and non-existent range outside eight feet also hamstrung an offense that wants to space the floor to trigger more penetration, kick-outs and threes. Whiteside hinders that objective.
A few months ago, Whiteside would have been the primary option to tangle with Embiid. In Game 3, he played two fewer minutes than he had in Game 2. The battle with Embiid he envisioned since their preseason beef over from Twitter carried onto the court hasn’t come to fruition. Whiteside’s role has diminished as this season has rolled along.
Miami could withstand Whiteside’s low-post oriented game if his credentials as an upper echelon defensive deterrent were more than a tall tale. Olynyk and James Johnson have been the Heat’s most productive frontcourt combo and the offense was 5.4 points better per 100 possessions when Whiteside was off the floor during the regular season.
Whiteside is also a defensive liability against stretch-5s. Olynyk doesn’t have the strength to bang with bruisers on the inside, however, Spoelstra chose Olynyk to dance with Embiid and Dario Saric for much of the evening because of how well he can space the floor. Whiteside was miffed earlier this month about his crunchtime minutes getting slashed and later apologized. However, this series is another sign that it would be mutually beneficial for his time in Miami to end sooner rather than later.
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