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As Hassan Whiteside finds his focus, Heat find their rhythm

Miami center Hassan Whiteside understands that he has a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on the Heat's season. Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

MIAMI -- Tyler Johnson isn't exactly sure when the tone of the conversation shifted, but he believes it came sometime during the transition between their Call of Duty and NBA2K16 video-game showdown.

Hassan Whiteside's historic run of production off the bench over the past month includes contributions from a number of sources. But perhaps none have been more vital, and simplistic, than the night the Miami Heat's shot-blocking savant didn't play on Feb. 19, the Heat's first game back from the All-Star break.

The Heat were on the road to face the Atlanta Hawks. Johnson, the second-year guard, was back in Miami at Whiteside's condo, just a few blocks down Biscayne Boulevard from AmericanAirlines Arena.

Johnson didn't make the trip because he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Whiteside didn't travel because he was banished, first by his own team, which sent him home because it didn't want him anywhere near the postgame media session Feb. 9 after he was ejected against the San Antonio Spurs for swinging an elbow toward the head of Spurs center Boban Marjanovic. Then, the NBA suspended him for one game for the infraction, which Whiteside served the first game back from the break.

Playing without leading scorer Chris Bosh, franchise anchor Dwyane Wade and Whiteside, the Heat beat the Hawks in their most stunning win of the season. Whiteside and Johnson had just watched the game on Whiteside's massive wall-mounted TV and were on the verge of a video-game bender. What evolved was a therapeutic philosophical session.

"Seeing how well the team did in that [Atlanta] game, I think we just started going back and forth," Johnson recalls a month later. "I'm sitting there like, 'Hassan, you're here suspended for what? This can't happen again. When you get back in there, you have the ability to take this good team to a whole other level. We have a lot of great pieces. But, Hassan, you're one of those pieces that's irreplaceable.'"

Whiteside, 26, had heard this all before on many levels.

Former players Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard are in Whiteside's ear all the time. They remind the athletic 7-footer, who has blocked nearly 80 more shots than anyone else in the league this season, of his enormous potential. As one of only two NBA players to rank in the top five in blocks, rebounds and field goal percentage, Whiteside has heard a similar mix of criticism and praise from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley, who are contemplating whether to raise his salary from the $990,000 he'll earn this season to the nearly $20 million a year he'll command this summer in free agency.

For the better parts of two seasons now, veteran teammates in Wade and Bosh have run the gamut from admiring Whiteside's potential to admonishing his detention hall lapses in maturity.

So why did Johnson's talk with Whiteside resonate even more than some moments with others?

"I just talk to Tyler because we're really in the same place right now," Whiteside said, referring to their similar journey from D-League stints to NBA breakthroughs. "Not too many people know how hard we had to fight just to get here. Not too many people gave us a chance. So we got the same story."

But there's one point where their respective hardscrabble paths diverge.

"I just come out and try to be aggressive, but in a good way. I just try to channel that in a positive way to help the team out instead of hurt the team."

Hassan Whiteside

With four weeks left before the playoffs, there's a chance Johnson might not play again this season if his shoulder doesn't heal in time. Whiteside, meanwhile, got a second chance to rebound from his misstep. And although he'll privately never completely embrace coming off the bench, Whiteside accepts he can't take any opportunity for granted in a season where Johnson and Bosh may not return, two other teammates have been traded and assistant coach Keith Smart remains away to treat skin cancer.

"We never experienced the [NBA] Finals before or making a deep playoff run. S---, we never even experienced making the playoffs," Johnson said of his talks with Whiteside. "Despite everything that's happened this season, we have a chance to do all of that. That's just something he's been thinking about for a while.

"We can talk about it, and I definitely told him I wish I was out there, too. That's that deep thinking you get to when you're up late and by yourself. I think he's just starting to get it."

The more Whiteside gets the little things, the greater impact he has on the court.

"Y'all guys acting like I'm going around beating people up and getting technicals and just going crazy," Whiteside said. "It was a mistake. My whole life has been tough. I'm still facing adversity."

Since serving that one-game suspension, Whiteside's dominant play has blossomed in his return from the All-Star break. He has averaged 17.6 points, 14.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks over the past month. During that stretch, he has also shot 57.6 percent from the field and 80.9 percent from the free-throw line in 31.2 minutes per game. After starting 40 of the first 45 games, Whiteside has come off the bench behind veteran Amar'e Stoudemire in every game since the final week of January.

Whiteside's streak of 13 consecutive double-doubles off the bench ended against the Hornets on Thursday and tied with the mark Paul Silas set in 1975 for the longest in league history.

"It's great to get a record, especially one that was set before you were born," Whiteside wisecracked. "And that's a record almost as old as your parents. So guess I'll just keep coming off the bench and keep setting records, you know.

"It's crazy, but it's special. I'm just going to try to tough it out."

Whiteside's increased level of production coincides with Miami having won 10 of its first 14 games after the break. Another factor has been the arrival of Joe Johnson, who was bought out by Brooklyn. The Heat are one of the top five scoring teams in the NBA since acquiring Johnson after rankings second-to-last in scoring (ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers) before he joined the team.

"I just come out and try to be aggressive, but in a good way," Whiteside said of his development and focus over the past month. "I just try to channel that in a positive way to help the team out instead of hurt the team.

"He's not caring about anything other than being dominant when he's on the basketball court. He's playing like a monster out there. We would love to get that Hassan every night. We would be a very good team if we can continue to get that Hassan."

Dwyane Wade

"I've got a lot of things to be riled up about, so I don't have to look for anything [else] for motivation. Without Chris Bosh here, my role goes up. We're learning how to play with this lineup we've got. We lost three guys. So we're just trying to play the best we can. I feel like we're right there."

A month ago, as the reality settled in that Bosh could be lost for the duration of a second consecutive season with a medical condition, the Heat could have been on the cusp of unraveling and heading to a second straight trip to the lottery. Instead, their turnaround has been one of the biggest surprises in the league. The Heat are now locked into a four-way battle with Boston, Charlotte and Atlanta for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race entering the final weeks of the regular season.

Their ability to trust and rely on Whiteside for consistent production and composure is critical.

"He's not caring about anything other than being dominant when he's on the basketball court," Wade said. "He's playing like a monster out there. We would love to get that Hassan every night. We would be a very good team if we can continue to get that Hassan.

"He's done his job. He's imposed his will since we've been back. When he's focused, he's angry. And when he's angry, just trying to be the best out there, the best big man on the floor, he puts it all together."

As important as Whiteside's suspension-night discussion was with Johnson, it was another heat-to-heart with Spoelstra earlier that same week that allowed the two to clear the air about his actions and new role off the bench. The two met in Spoelstra's offense for 90 minutes on Feb. 17, hours before the Heat returned to hold their first practice from the break.

"It was just about what he expects from me the rest of the season, and I gave him my side," Whiteside said. "We had an understanding of each other, and it was a great talk. We laughed. We had a good time. Spo's my guy.

"I was disappointed [in myself]. I got focused. I'm focused on just being the best Hassan I can be and add value to this great organization. I want to try to put some more banners up in this arena."

Spoelstra insists the meeting was less of a summit between the two and more of an ongoing dialogue.

"It's not going to be the last meeting, and that wasn't the first, all right?" Spoelstra said with a shrug. "Hassan and I have spent a lot of time together over the last year and a half. I know I sound like a broken record, but he's learning how to bring value to a team to help you win.

"And that can be so many different ways. He's building trust, playing positive minutes on the scoreboard. I could list all of the stuff everybody's talked about it. He's getting better with it. Those are all the teaching points, offensively, defensively, communicating better, attention to detail with the game plans."

Work ethic has never been an issue with Whiteside, who routinely returns to the arena late at night after practices or games to utilize what he refers to as "the best 24-hour workout gym" in the city. Often, he runs with the collection of rehabbing or young players Whiteside joins for workouts.

"He's always up here, even with our pre-practice group," Johnson said. "He's not a bad guy at all. Any perception that he is or doesn't work hard is unfair. I think it was just him having to know that when he makes those silly mistakes, giving a guy a cheap shot or an elbow. Yeah, it hurts you because you're getting fined, but it hurts the team more because now you're drawing attention in a negative light."

Now, it's impossible to ignore the shine around Whiteside's game.

One day after he served the suspension, Whiteside posted career highs of 25 points and 23 rebounds in a Feb. 20 win over Washington. One rival Eastern Conference executive said a strong case could be made that he's one of the best three centers in the NBA.

"I know there's some question about maturity and a little knuckleheaded stuff out there with [Whiteside], but there's only three or four guys who can get you 20 [points] and 20 [rebounds] in a game," the executive told ESPN.com. "And he's one of them. And he does it so easily most of the time."

When informed of that comment, Whiteside responded: "But ain't nobody doing that with blocks, too."

Whiteside is already ineligible for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award because he will end the season having started more games than he will have had coming off the bench. But the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year honor remains a target after he received just one third-place vote last season. His focus isn't on individual awards or his pending free agency windfall.

"If you win, everything else happens," Whiteside said. "Team success is most important. As long as we're winning, it's going to work its way out."

Since the suspension, Whiteside has done admirable work. But like those lob dunks he loves to catch, the assist goes to guys like Johnson, who helped Whiteside talk his way through those challenging nights.