MIAMI — Center Hassan Whiteside is back in the Miami Heat starting lineup after a knee injury cost him 13 games.
But now that Whiteside has returned, how will Heat coach Erik Spoelstra manage the minutes at power forward and center?
Some answers are expected on Friday night, when the Heat (18-16) play host to the lowly Brooklyn Nets (12-22). Spoelstra will have Kelly Olynyk, rookie Bam Adebayo and Whiteside at his disposal, and the latter said he is ready for increased minutes.
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“I feel pretty good,” Whiteside said after he played 18 minutes in Miami’s 107-89 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. “I feel at least 90-something (percent). I’m getting used to playing with my (knee) brace.”
Whiteside produced seven points, eight rebounds, no blocks and no assists in his return to action.
In contrast, Olynyk posted 15 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and two assists in 32 minutes. Adebayo came off the bench and produced eight points, nine rebounds, two blocks and four assists.
It’s clear that the pairing of Olynyk and Adebayo has meshed well this season.
“You can tell they’ve had a lot of reps together,” Heat shooting guard Wayne Ellington said. “They can both pass the ball really well.
“It’s fun for guards to play with those guys. They’re always looking to set screens. Bam can get to the rim, and Kelly can shoot the 3-ball.”
Ellington’s point about those two post players passing ability is well taken considering Olynyk is averaging 3.3 assists per 36 minutes. Adebayo is at 1.9 in that category, and Whiteside — a shoot-first big man — is at 0.5 assists per 36.
Adebayo said he has learned to find Ellington, one of the league’s better 3-point shooters.
“Every time I have the ball and he’s on my side of the floor, I’m looking for him,” Adebayo said. “When he shoots, I tell him to rack up my assists and make me look good.”
The Nets, meanwhile, have their own 3-point specialist in 6-foot-6 shooting guard Allen Crabbe, a 25-year-old who was acquired prior to this season in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Crabbe shot 3-pointers well in each of the past two seasons, making 39.3 percent and 44.4 percent.
That skill is one reason why Crabbe has a four-year, $74 million contract that is the fifth-largest in Nets history in terms of average salary ($18.5 million per year). He has a base salary of $19.3 million this season.
Brooklyn, however, doesn’t feel it is getting its money’s worth just yet as Crabbe is shooting 37.2 percent on his 3-point tries and has slumped to 15-for-58 over his past eight games (25.8 percent). That includes a 1-for-5 performance in Wednesday’s 128-113 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
“Listen, he’s struggling a little bit,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told the New York Post. “I feel like he’s getting decent looks. I don’t think he’s driving on close-outs like he should. They’re closing out on him.”
The Heat, who are in the middle of an eight-game Florida stretch, is hoping to close out not just Crabbe but the Nets in general as Miami looks to take advantage of the schedule. The only road game during this home-heavy Heat span is Saturday at the Orlando Magic, keeping Miami within the confines of the Sunshine State.
So far, the Heat are 2-1 during this stretch, and it’s important because the team is just 8-8 at home and has actually been better on the road.
Whiteside, if he can return to the form that saw him lead the NBA in blocked shots and rebounding once each in the past two years, will be vital to the Heat’s wished-upon home dominance.
“It’s going to be a bit of a process,” Spoelstra said. “But you can see what he brings — great size, rebounding and intimidation at the rim.
“And then you have the different skill sets of (Olynyk and Adebayo). I think we can be pretty dynamic once we get this put together.”