MIAMI -- For nearly two months, Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside came off the bench to set franchise records, post the best numbers of his career and was the defensive anchor during the team's most successful stretch of the season.
There was only one problem.
"It's tough," Whiteside said recently of his reserve role.
Although Whiteside never openly complained about the assignment, it was never one he truly embraced and felt comfortable carrying out despite the upturn in production. So when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra approached Whiteside about 90 minutes before the start of Sunday's game to reinsert him into the starting lineup, the NBA's leading shot blocker had another two-word response.
"I'm ready,'" Whiteside said of his response to Spoelstra. "He wants to give me more minutes going forward. I'm ready. I woke up this morning thinking I was going to be coming off the bench. When I got here, I found out I was going to be starting. So I just laced them up and got ready to play basketball."
There wasn't a drastic change in Whiteside's impact, but he at least returned to a psychological comfort zone while collecting his 41st double-double of the season in the Heat's 118-96 win over the Orlando Magic. Whiteside finished with 18 points, a team-high 15 rebounds and two blocks in 28 minutes after he opened the game alongside regular starters Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng.
Spoelstra tweaked his lineup in the final week of the regular season, which gives Whiteside a chance to readjust for another two games before Miami opens the playoffs next weekend. The Heat (47-33) close out the regular season at Detroit on Tuesday and at Boston on Wednesday, with the Celtics currently positioned as the team Miami would face in the opening round of the playoffs.
In 30 games off the bench this season, Whiteside has averaged 16.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in 29.3 minutes. Over 40 games as a starter, he has averaged 12.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.9 blocks in 28.9 minutes. Sunday was Whiteside's first start since Jan. 20, when he sustained a hip injury during a loss in Washington, and he has since been replaced by 14-year veteran Amar'e Stoudemire.
The latest lineup adjustment also came two days after Whiteside struggled to defend Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who had 29 points in Friday's 112-109 win over the Heat in Orlando. After that game, Whiteside reiterated how difficult it has been for him to get going early in games while coming off the bench. Ideally, Spoelstra is using the change as both a reward and a challenge to Whiteside, who is one of only two players in the NBA ranked in the top five in blocks, rebounds and field goal percentage.
"We need a higher level from Hassan, and I thought the time was right now," Spoelstra said in explaining his rationale for the change. "This basketball team needs him to play at his best level, his most aggressive level, his most consistent level, his most reliable level, his most dominant physical level."
Spoelstra believed Whiteside responded well enough Sunday.
"But now, the challenge will be, 'Do it again,'" Spoelstra said.
The promotion also comes at money time for Whiteside, who is in the final season of a two-year deal with the Heat that is paying him $990,000 this season. As a candidate for NBA defensive player of the year, most improved player and the league's All-Defensive team honors, Whiteside likely will command a max contract as a free agent this summer that could be worth nearly $100 million over four seasons. A strong postseason in the starting role he opened the season with could erase any doubt about his value.
"I'm still going to play the same way," Whiteside said of maintaining the efficient production he played with as a reserve. "I'm still going to come out there and play with high energy, make it tough on the other team to score and try to make the best plays for my teammates while I'm out there."
Considering his track record with the rotation throughout the season, Spoelstra likely wouldn't hesitate to put Whiteside back on the bench if there's a drop-off in focus and intensity. As a reserve, Whiteside set the franchise record with 24 of his double-doubles off the bench. His free throw shooting percentage and field goal shooting both improved drastically as a motivated, backup center.
"I'm still going to come out there and play with high energy, make it tough on the other team to score and try to make the best plays for my teammates while I'm out there." Hassan Whiteside
So the standard to remain a starter is high.
"With coach Spo, it's never enough," Whiteside said. "He always wants me to do more and more. He just says, ‘Be great. Don't ever settle.'"
Some of the Heat's other starters must also get used to playing with Whiteside in the opening minutes of the game. The team has gone through multiple changes since Whiteside's previous stint as a starter over the first half of the season. Since then, Chris Bosh has been sidelined since the All-Star break to recover from a medical condition. On Sunday, Spoelstra declined to address whether Bosh would be available for the playoffs. Over the past two months, Deng has shifted from small forward to power forward, and Johnson was acquired in March to start at small forward after he was bought out by the Brooklyn Nets.
Whiteside has spent plenty of time playing with various rotation combinations during games, so teammates don't believe it would take long for the new starting lineup to get in sync for the postseason.
"I like playing with him, period," Wade said of Whiteside. "However coach decides to play him, he has proven he can do it. Coach did it and we all support whatever decisions he makes. We haven't played with [Whiteside] since [Bosh] went out, so this is our first time. It was good as we get prepared for the playoffs."