If the Charlotte Hornets are going to recover any shred of their dignity in this playoff series, they are first going to have to figure out how to combat a seven-footer from Gastonia.
Miami plastered Charlotte, 123-91, in Game 1 of the teams’ playoff series Sunday. And the Heat’s Hassan Whiteside – who once would have given just about anything to play for the Hornets – absolutely dominated the game inside. In the first playoff game of his career, Whiteside had 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
“It’s a blessing for me to play in the playoffs against my hometown team,” Whiteside said later, “and it’s a surreal chapter in my life.”
Yes, it was that. The Hornets could have had Whiteside less than two years ago for practically nothing by NBA standards. Of course, any other NBA team could have had him, too. And nobody – except, eventually, Miami – wanted him.
Nowadays, Whiteside, 26, is about to get a new contract that may be in the neighborhood of $20 million a year. He led the NBA in shots blocked this season – by 92! He is exactly what the Hornets tried (and failed) for years to turn their former top-10 pick Bismack Biyombo into – a rim-protecting force who also can score inside.
The Heat shot the ball amazingly well Sunday. Miami set a franchise record for points in a playoff game, and that won’t happen again in this series. But what is going to happen is that Whiteside is going to be there, every game, guarding the rim on defense like a modern-day version of Bill Russell and dunking the ball on pick-and-rolls when the Hornets don’t guard him.
Charlotte had no answer for Whiteside Sunday. “We just got manhandled,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.
All of this occurred a long way from Charlotte’s Dowd YMCA, which is about two miles from the Hornets’ home arena. Whiteside often worked out at the Dowd in 2014, trying to keep his NBA dream alive after Sacramento and Memphis both decided he couldn’t play and released him. He had bounced all over the place by then – growing up but never playing high school varsity basketball in Gastonia and living for awhile in New Jersey. He also played a year of college basketball at Marshall, went to the NBA early, struck out there twice and then played overseas in Lebanon and China.
Whiteside told me Sunday that he and his agent attempted to get a workout with the Hornets in 2014 but were unable to do so. “You know, we tried,” he said. “We tried several times. they didn’t want me. So there’s really nothing I can say about that. They said ‘No’ several times and we moved on to another team.”
This is a point of dispute, as the Hornets have previously told The Observer that Whiteside’s agent did not contact them in 2014. Whiteside believes that his hometown team turned him down, though, and whether or not it happened quite that way it looks like it is fueling him.
“Revenge never gets old,” Whiteside said.
So Whiteside played like he was the older brother of both Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson Sunday, winning each of those matchups as the Heat led for every second, torching Charlotte with a 41-point first quarter and never looking back. The sellout crowd of 19,600 at American Airlines Arena cheered his every dunk – and there were a lot of them. To match the Heat’s white jerseys, all the fans wore white T-shirts.
“I really felt at home,” Whiteside said. “With my last name being Whiteside, I really love seeing a lot of white.”
Whiteside and the Heat will host the Hornets again in Game 2 before heading to Charlotte for Game 3 on Saturday. Despite growing up in Gastonia, where he attended three high schools, he only saw the Hornets play once in Charlotte as a fan. I asked him if he ever attended a Hornets game as a kid.
“Nah, man, we couldn’t afford it at the time,” Whiteside said. “I ended up going to a Hornets game after I was in the NBA and trying to get back, when I was out of the league. Vince Carter left me a ticket. So thank you, Vince Carter.”
Carter and Whiteside had briefly intersected in Memphis before the Grizzlies released Whiteside. So Whiteside saw Charlotte play Memphis. And then, not long after that, he was playing for the Heat (which signed him Nov. 24, 2014) in Charlotte.
Sunday was his first playoff game, and his teammates are interested to see how he deals with success.
“In the next game, Hassan may not get those same lob opportunities,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said. “How’s he going to respond to that?”
That will be interesting. But the first response must be by the Hornets. Because the seven-footer from Gastonia put an absolute beatdown on them Sunday.