MIAMI -- Technically, Hassan Whiteside was benched.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a point to make. Whiteside had a lesson to learn after settling for a couple of ill-advised long jumpers outside of the flow of the offense. So at the 6:52 mark of the second quarter in Tuesday's game against the Detroit Pistons, Whiteside looked over his shoulder and saw veteran forward Udonis Haslem enter the court from the scorer's table.
"Who, me?" Whiteside asked Haslem, as if he didn't already know the answer.
Whiteside dropped his shoulders, half-heartedly extended an open palm that never came close to executing the slap of hands with Haslem, and then trudged toward a seat on the bench. For the next three minutes, Whiteside watched Haslem snag a rebound in traffic, knock down a baseline jumper and draw a charge call while in perfect defensive position in the lane.
Spoelstra didn't necessarily have to say a word to Whiteside during that brief stretch. The energy, focus and urgency with which Haslem played in a rare dose of action spoke volumes. In three possessions, the Heat extended their lead by six points on the way to a 107-89 win over Detroit. Even 77 games into the season, learning a lesson from the bench during games is still vital to Whiteside's development.
"[There were] a couple of teaching points that I wanted to make, and the only way to them was to take him out," Spoelstra said afterward of Whiteside. "And he made some adjustments to that. I will probably continue to do that. His energy was good after that point."
Whiteside regrouped, returned and set a franchise record by collecting his 22nd double-double off the bench when he finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks in just under 29 minutes. Tuesday was another example of the delicate balance this season with which the Heat have handled Whiteside, who alternates flashes of being the NBA's most dominant big man with stretches of stunning lapses in focus.
The one constant along the way has been Miami's tough love and teachable moments. In much the same fashion as he did after Tuesday's brief benching, Whiteside has largely embraced the coaching and correction, responding with improved play almost immediately. In his first few minutes back in the game late in the second quarter, Whiteside passed up bad shots and moved the ball.
"The learning never stops with me and coach Spo," Whiteside said. "He wants perfection from me. He is always saying I can do something better. Every day is a learning experience, and that's what he's here to do. He's there to teach and make me the best player I can be."
There's more urgency and less margin for error in these lessons for Whiteside, who is among three younger rotation players Miami (45-32) relies heavily on as the team prepares for the playoffs. Whiteside and rookies Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow combined for 39 points and 17 rebounds to boost a Heat bench that outscored Detroit's reserves 26-7 at one stage as Miami built a 23-point lead.
Heat guard Dwyane Wade emphasized that attention to detail at this point is crucial for Whiteside, Winslow and Richardson as the team tries to secure one of the top four seeds in the East, which would guarantee home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Miami has won 10 of its last 12 home games and is tied with Boston for the No. 4 seed with five games left. The Hawks, Celtics, Heat and Hornets are separated by just 1½ games between the third to the sixth spots.
After missing the playoffs last season, any chance Miami has to advance this season will hinge on how well its young core adjusts to playoff intensity and learns from mistakes. The Heat's push to secure a home-court seed has given the final weeks of the regular season a bit of a postseason feel.
"We're trying to play these games and see if we can bounce back from the mental moments where it seems tough, where you get a bad loss and all of those things," Wade said. "By the time these last [five] games are over with, maybe we're more prepared than we even knew. There are going to be some moments in games where it's going to be frustrating, and we've got to learn to get over that. In the playoffs, you have to move on fast from frustrating plays and frustrating moments."
Few players stand to be more vital to the Heat's success than Whiteside, one of only two NBA players who rank among the top five in blocks (first), field-goal percentage (third) and rebounding (fourth). Whiteside's 38 double-doubles overall are ninth-most in the league this season.
Yet, the 2010 second-round pick who could command a $100 million contract in free agency this summer still isn't beyond being yanked from a game and shown the way.
"That's all I've been trying to do all season is set an example for the younger guys, and we have to keep doing things the right way ... until it becomes contagious," said Haslem, a Heat co-captain. "Even though Hassan has been in the league and has had his journeys, he hasn't been on a team with good vets, with a winning organization, doing things the Miami Heat way."
Whiteside is taking the lessons in stride. He told ESPN.com after Tuesday's game that he has had routine conversations with Hall of Fame center and former Heat star Shaquille O'Neal about ways to approach the game. "Big Fella just told me to dominate," Whiteside said. "Stop messing around and dominate."
After Whiteside's play improved once he returned to the court in the first half Tuesday, Spoelstra darted directly toward the 7-foot center and reached up to high-five him during a break in play.
"I thought his suit was too tight to give a high-five," Whiteside joked. "But he pulled it off. He surprised me. I was never a bad guy to coach. I think I've got a better understanding of the game than I did [before]. I understand how important it is to eat breakfast. I'm getting better at basketball. I'm better with Snaps [Snapchat]. I'm just getting better every day."