April 14, 2016

MIAMI (AP) Hassan Whiteside is the NBA's new king of blocked shots. He just set a Miami Heat single-season record for rebounds per game. He's a few months away from signing a contract that should set him up financially for life.

In other words, he won.

Thing is, Whiteside doesn't want to talk about anything in those terms. He wants to be noticed, he wants to be celebrated, he desperately wants to be voted the NBA's defensive player of the year. But he also doesn't want to lose his edge, stemming from the pain he carries from all the times he was cut from a team or told he wasn't wanted.

''They know,'' Whiteside said. ''They know they messed up.''

The Heat are reaping the benefits, and Whiteside will make his playoff debut on Sunday when their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Charlotte Hornets in Miami. It's a doubly significant series for Whiteside - not only is it his first time in the postseason, but Charlotte is a mere half-hour drive or so from his hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina.

''He's come a long way this season, on and off the floor,'' Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. ''I'm proud of him.''

Haslem isn't the only one in the Heat locker room to share such sentiment. They know what Whiteside - who finished with averages of 14.2 points and 11.8 rebounds - has meant to a Heat team that won 48 games in the regular season and wound up as the No. 3 seed in the East.

The season could have fallen apart for the Heat at the All-Star break. Chris Bosh was diagnosed with another blood clot at the break for the second consecutive year and hasn't played since. Miami was sitting at No. 5 in the East, five games over .500 and not knowing that Bosh would be sidelined the rest of the way.

Whiteside didn't know how his role was about to change.

As the break ended Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Whiteside had a brief meeting to talk about what was at stake for the team and for Whiteside's future in Miami. Whatever Spoelstra said worked. The Heat went 19-10 down the stretch, the fifth-best record in the NBA over that span and Whiteside - despite coming off the bench in most of those games - was a huge reason why, after raising his scoring, rebounding and free-throw shooting numbers.

''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 said.

That's what the Heat are getting.

There are still moments where he slips. Whiteside was ejected and subsequently suspended this season after throwing an elbow at San Antonio's Boban Marjanovic in February. Whiteside didn't think the criticism he got for that was fair, insisting that he didn't make contact on the play and saying it ''got way more emphasized than any triple double, any stats, anything I ever did.''

He atoned for that moment.

Whiteside led the league at 3.68 blocked shots per game, had three triple-doubles - the same total as LeBron James this season - and shot 61 percent from the field, another Heat single-season record breaking the mark previously held by Shaquille O'Neal.

''He came back and has really limited his immaturity moments,'' Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. ''He's been growing on his own. He's been growing because he's been allowing people to help him. He's been listening more and it's all part of his success on the court.''

Whiteside wants to stay in Miami and the Heat want him back, even though his price tag has risen big-time this season. It's a far cry from when he had to go to Lebanon or China to play, or when he was getting cut from D-League teams.

''I got cut three times,'' Whiteside said. ''Or four. Five, maybe. I don't know. I got cut a lot.''

Odds are, that won't happen again.

''I had GMs say I would never play in the NBA,'' Whiteside said. ''That was as close as the summer before I signed here. So now I just try to dominate.''

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