When the Miami Heat announced Chris Bosh would possibly miss the rest of the year due to another blood clot scare, another disappointing finish loomed on the horizon. Bosh was the team's best all-around player and an anchor on both ends of the court. Miami's season sputtered when he was forced to sit out at around the same time last year.
Instead, the Heat have actually improved as the season progressed this time around. Goran Dragic's improved play has helped, and Joe Johnson, signed after being waved by the Nets, has been a godsend.
But it's been the play of Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the Heat's three-headed monster off the bench, that has Miami really looking like a possible threat to LeBron James and the struggling Cavaliers. Whiteside understandably gets most of the publicity, but Winslow and Richardson have also emerged as key cogs and versatile weapons capable of taking out even the strongest of teams.
It's no accident that the trio has been the three-man lineup used most frequently by Erik Spoelstra since the All-Star Game, according to NBA.com. In those minutes, Miami is scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions while surrendering just 102.7. The Bench Mob -- as they'd prefer to be known -- perfectly compliment each other's strengths and compensate for the weaknesses of some of Miami's starters.
Take Winslow, for example. Dwyane Wade and Johnson are too worn to be chasing the top dogs of opposing teams on defense. Winslow, on the other hand, has everything you look for in a wing stopper: Speed, quickness, strength, size, length and mental acumen.
Most importantly, he clearly relishes the role.
Winslow still is a poor shooter (he's connecting on just 26 percent of his three-point attempts this season), which limits his effectiveness on offense. But because he's so good defensively and Whiteside has become so dominant inside, the Heat can play Winslow as their nominal power forward to minimize his perimeter weaknesses.
Winslow does possess a Tony Allen-like knack of cutting to the basket, which helps defeat teams that choose not to guard him. In an offense full of ball-dominant guards, this expertise becomes even more useful.
It also helps that Richardson, the team's second-round pick this year, is shooting the ball as if he used Monstar-like powers to swipe Stephen Curry's accuracy. Richardson has nailed 50 percent of his threes this season and a whopping 62 percent since the All-Star break, a massive improvement from the 32-percent mark he posted during his four-year college career at Tennessee. His marksmanship helps make up for Winslow's own perimeter struggles.
Richardson's shooting also creates spacing for Wade and Dragic in a way no player has all season. The Heat don't launch many three-pointers as a team and that hasn't changed in recent weeks. But they at least now have Johnson and Richardson, two players who need to be honored on the perimeter. Sometimes, just a few steps in the wrong direction or a moment of hesitation are all Wade and Dragic need to get to the rim.
Richardson does plenty of his own creating, too.
All this is a bonus, because it was Richardson's strong defense that caused the Heat to select him in the second round of last year's draft. In Richardson and Winslow, Miami now has a pair of rookies players who are young, explosive and athletic, all areas in short supply elsewhere on the roster.
Yet it's Whiteside who's been the star among the group. The free-agent-to-be had shown glimpses since arriving in Miami last season, but is finally dominating games on a nightly basis despite coming off the bench. Since the All-Star break, Whiteside is averaging 18 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. He's swatting everything in sight, altering the shots he can't get to and limiting opponents to one chance.
More importantly, he's now impacting the Heat's defense as a whole. Remember those weird numbers from earlier this season that showed Miami's defense performing at a better level with Whiteside off the floor? That trend has completely reversed over time. Since the the All-Star break, the Heat are holding opponents to 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Whiteside plays, according to NBA.com. His mere presence makes guards timid and coaxes them into settling for low-percentage mid-range jumpers and floaters in order to avoid being challenged by his long arms.
Wade remains the heart and soul of the Heat team, but you could make a strong argument that Whiteside is actually their best player in Bosh's absence. It might make sense for Spoelstra to re-insert him back into the starting lineup come playoff time, even though the current arrangement of Amar'e Stoudemire beginning games and Whiteside finishing them works well enough.
But no matter who starts, Spoelstra must make sure Whiteside continues to see extended minutes with both Winslow and Richardson. Keeping the trio together and throwing them onto opponents may be the key to pulling of a late May upset.
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