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Miami's Hassan Whiteside can't be ignored any longer

MIAMI -– Whether manufactured or legit, there's no shortage of motivation for Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside in his first career NBA playoffs.

First, consider the opponent. Whiteside grew up in North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte, and the Hornets' arena is only a few blocks from the recreation center where he worked out while out of the NBA two years ago. As Whiteside and his agent waited for tryout offers from teams throughout the league, he claims there wasn't a peep from the hometown Hornets.

Of course, they weren't alone. A majority of the NBA bypassed Whiteside after he washed out of the league amid injury, conditioning and maturity concerns a year after Sacramento picked him in the second round of the 2011 draft following his lone season at Marshall. But after bouncing around the globe to play in various foreign leagues, Whiteside set his hopes on making an NBA comeback in 2014.

Rejections were routine for Whiteside back then -- but in a far different sense of the word. Failing to draw interest from the Hornets stung more than the others for Whiteside, who led the NBA in blocks by a margin of 90 this season and finished third in NBA defensive player of the year voting Monday.

"It's just because it was two blocks away," Whiteside said Tuesday of Charlotte's uptown arena. "I'd see it every day, and I think that's what it was. I thought about it. But it's a blessing in disguise because I'm here [in Miami]. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone to Charlotte? I've got a great front office, great coaches and great teammates, so everything worked out."

Whiteside, 26, now commands the Hornets' full attention entering Game 2 on Wednesday, after he dominated with 21 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in 26 minutes during Miami's 123-91 victory in Sunday's series opener. Among the more pressing questions Charlotte coach Steve Clifford faced after the blowout loss was whether he needed to tweak his strategy to limit Whiteside's impact.

"I wouldn't see the point in changing our lineup right now," Clifford said regarding Whiteside, who had a triple-double with 10 blocks against Charlotte earlier this season. "He's been more consistent. He's an absolute force in there. You have to have ways to move him around to try to get to the rim. He's going to be a factor, and we have to be able to score with Al Jefferson. We have to try and get to the rim before [Whiteside] has a chance to recover on defense. [That's] easier said than done, obviously."

Whiteside made nine of his 11 shots from the field and was particularly a threat when rolling to the rim after setting screens for Goran Dragic or Dwyane Wade, who combined for 17 assists. Even as a decoy, Whiteside's presence in the paint was effective. The focus he commanded helped open lanes for others.

Heat forward Luol Deng also exploited his matchup advantage at small forward and scored a team-high 31 points to lead five Heat players in double figures. Miami's 123 points set a franchise playoff record.

Whiteside entered the series having struggled at times in previous matchups with Jefferson, the Hornets' burly center who counters with bulk and veteran craftiness around the basket to score or draw fouls. Even so, Jefferson has come off the bench since returning from a midseason knee injury, and by the time he entered in Game 1, Whiteside was already in a dominant rhythm.

"We made it easy for him ... he got easy shots and offensive rebounds and dunk after dunk," Jefferson said. "You've got to make it tough for him. You've got to make it physical for him. We didn't do that."

Coincidentally, Whiteside prepared himself to take a pounding in Game 2. During an extended session after Tuesday's practice, Whiteside went through a low-post drill designed for him to grab offensive rebounds and score on putbacks as assistant coaches Juwan Howard and David Fizdale pushed, grabbed and shoved him around in the lane.

The paint isn't expected to be as comfortable Wednesday as it was in Game 1.

"I know they're going to make adjustments, and I expect every game to get harder," Whiteside said after the extended workout. "I know Charlotte is going to come in here looking for revenge. They're a tough team. Coming off losses, they tend to bounce back really well. We all just have to stay focused."

A bit of that focus waned Monday, when Whiteside voiced his frustrations over not winning defensive player of the year, despite finishing first in the NBA in blocks (269) and third in rebounding (11.8 per game). Teammates, including Wade, tried to comfort Whiteside and suggested there is no shame in finishing behind two-time winner Kawhi Leonard and second-place finisher Draymond Green. Leonard anchored a San Antonio defense that was the NBA's most dominant in two decades. Green was the versatile defensive catalyst on a Golden State team that won a league-record 73 games this season.

Whiteside saw it as another dose of rejection of his talent and growth.

"I'm not used to getting credit for what I do, so I'm not surprised," Whiteside said after the award was announced. "I'm used to getting overlooked. I got overlooked for All-Star, I got overlooked for tryouts ... I'm used to being overlooked."

By Tuesday, Whiteside was finished sulking -- at least publicly.

"That was yesterday," he said when asked about the award on Tuesday. "I ain't worried about it anymore."

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admits Whiteside's development remains a work in progress. Considering how far Whiteside has come in just his first full season in the NBA, that notion could be problematic for postseason opponents.

"It hasn't been an ‘Ah-ha' moment," Spoelstra said. "It's been two steps forward, one step back, one step forward. He keeps on working at it. He understands now winning defensive plays don't necessarily show up in a box score, and he's making more of those. Now, that's allowing him to have more of an impact in the paint, and that might mean he has [fewer] blocked shots."

Spoelstra has challenged Whiteside to channel any disappointment into postseason dominance.

"He can be defensive player of the playoffs," Spoelstra said. "That would be more important right now."