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Hassan Whiteside feasting as Heat’s new franchise player

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. –  Before declaring for the NBA draft, before falling to the second round as a projected lottery pick, before flaming out with the Kings, before spending years in Lebanon, China and the D-League… Hassan Whiteside was a freshman at Marshall who planned to study nutrition.

That went on the backburner as he went on a basketball odyssey that saw him sink below basketball hell. He was so focused on getting back to the NBA, he couldn’t afford to spend much time on the big picture – literally. The last few years, Whiteside’s salary ranged from modest for an NBA player to modest for an American.

The Heat finally rewarded him with a four-year, $98 million max contract last summer, making Whiteside the first player to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next.

“It changed my life,” Whiteside said.

One of the most immediate improvements: Whiteside hired a full-time chef. His previous chef cooked for him just a couple times a week. Any more would have been an indulgence when his compensation hadn’t yet set himself up for retirement. Now, Whiteside is eating better.

“He ain’t made a bad dish yet,” Whiteside said. “He’s pretty amazing.”

It’s all so amazing.

Three years ago, the Heat’s best players were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Whiteside was out of the league.

Now, Whiteside has become Miami’s cornerstone.

Whiteside knew his contract – which will make him the Heat’s highest-paid player once they waive Bosh –  would mean Miami’s record would reflect more directly on him than ever. The Heat are 5-12, a stark drop from 48-34 and a playoff-series win last season.

The departures of Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson obviously factor. So does a weak supporting cast left in the wake. But franchise players rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

The mission for Whiteside now shouldn’t be leading Miami to the playoffs, a mostly unrealistic goal. The focus should be on establishing himself as a reliable co-star for free agents next summer, when the Heat could have substantial cap room sans Bosh.

Whiteside is producing an All-Star-caliber season, averaging 17.3 points and an NBA-best 15.1 rebounds per game – marks only Kevin Love has hit over a full season in the last 25 years. Most of the players to do it prior are in the Hall of Fame.

After striving so hard just to return to the NBA, how his Whiteside handling this boost in prominence?

“I always had that belief in myself,” Whiteside said. “I looked at the guys on TV. I feel like I can compete with anybody or play better than anyone. It’s not really arrogance or anything. It’s just having that confidence in yourself, because that’s kind of what you needed when you get cut as many times as I did.”

Those days of fighting for roster spots are gone. Now, it’s about growing as a player, exchanging eye-catching stats for meaningful production when there’s a difference.

Last season, Whiteside blocked 3.7 shots per game and allowed opponents to shoot 46.5% at the rim while he was defending it. This season, he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game and allowing opponents to shoot 41.5% at the rim while he’s defending it.

“I love that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s physical profile – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and elite hops – always gave him potential to be an elite shot-blocker and rebounder. Refining his skills was the next step, one Spoelstra harped on.

On the other hand, it was never clear Whiteside could lead an NBA team in scoring – but that’s what he’s doing right now.

“Quite frankly, we need it,” Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s shooting efficiency has predictably dropped as he has taken a larger load. Previously, he shot only when he had an excellent chance of scoring. Now, he’s taking all those shots plus ones with lower odds.

Still, those additional looks are still frequently more efficient than other shots Miami can produce. Feeding Whiteside is often the best answer, especially considering his assist rate has improved (though from a comically low point).

After so much handwringing about Whiteside’s maturity, every aspect of his game has improved since signing long-term. He has invested in himself – from a chef to thinking the game better – and it’s paying off.

“He seems to be growing every week, and I can’t wait to see his growth as this season goes on,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know where he’ll be in the spring the way he’s improving right now.”

What was Klay Thompson trying to say during this interview?

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In-game interviews are both an interesting layer of texture that adds depth to a TV broadcast and perhaps a distracting commitment for those playing or coaching in an NBA game.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when things like this happen.

As the Golden State Warriors took on the Sacramento Kings on Friday night, Klay Thompson was pulled aside for an in-game interview with our friends over at NBC Sports Bay Area. Thompson was asked a question by Kerith Burke about ball movement leading to 3-pointers. Thompson was apparently in need of some sports drink because his answer was a little loopy.

Here’s what Thompson said in response to Burke:

“It’s great on both si— uh. It’s great, both of them are great. And we’re getting out and pushing them on the pace. That’s when we’re at our best.”

I’m not sure what I can parse from that. Maybe you can do better?

Thompson had 27 points, nine rebounds, and three assists in the win over the Kings, 130-125.

Raptors, Nuggets to face off in game between conference leaders

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Sunday night’s marquee matchup in the NBA features the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conference.

No, it’s not Boston vs. Golden State, as many would expect. Instead, Toronto and Denver lead their respective conferences a third of the way through the season.

The Raptors (23-8) come into Sunday’s matchup in Denver banged up, but they have company. The Nuggets are missing three starters from opening night but have been able to push through for their best start in decades.

Denver (19-9) leads the Western Conference this late in the season for the first time despite not having forward Paul Millsap (broken toe), guard Gary Harris (hip) and forward Will Barton (core muscle surgery). Coach Michael Malone has dug deep into his bench and found some production.

Most notable among the players stepping up is third-year forward Juancho Hernangomez. The Spaniard has played well this season, including 16 points in a key win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

He also had a big block in the final seconds of a 100-98 win over Golden State in the third game of the season.

“Juancho always plays extremely hard,” Malone told reporters after Friday’s win. “I think in his first two years he was playing very hard but not a lot of discipline. He was just all over the place. I think he’s calming down, he’s understanding who he’s guarding, tendencies, he’s having a lot more discipline within the game plan.”

Toronto has also adjusted to injuries, but it will be tested without center Jonas Valanciunas, who underwent surgery on his dislocated left thumb Thursday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.

Forward Kawhi Leonard scored 28 Friday night at Portland after missing two games with a hip injury, and guard Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a thigh injury. He didn’t play against the Trail Blazers two nights after having 23 points and 12 assists in a win at Golden State.

Lowry had been struggling a bit before the win over the Warriors, which was a surprise to teammate Fred VanVleet.

“It’s unusual to see a guy who plays at a high level like that go through slumps,” VanVleet told reporters earlier in the week.

“But it comes and goes. It was just shot-making, really. It wasn’t like he wasn’t showing effort. He was probably frustrated he wasn’t making shots, but that comes and goes, and he’s right back where we want him, and where we need him to be.”

VanVleet had 21 points and eight assists Friday and likely will be tasked with trying to contain Denver point guard Jamal Murray.

The job of containing Nuggets center Nikola Jokic should fall to Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam, but not many have been able to contain the Serbian.

Toronto will be looking for some revenge, too. The Nuggets snapped the Raptors’ eight-game winning streak with a 106-103 victory on Dec. 3. Jokic had a triple-double and Lowry missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.

Denver had Millsap and Harris in that game but won’t have either Sunday.

Jabari Parker says he doesn’t expect benching to be permanent

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Jabari Parker is no longer a part of the Chicago Bulls lineup, and he is reportedly available in a trade.

Parker was taken out of the Bulls regular rotation after their game against the Orlando Magic this week, and it was just another odd story coming out of the Windy City. In addition to the Parker saga, the team has also fired their coach and had a player-organized protest of his replacement.

The Chicago native is the highest paid player on the Bulls roster, but his short time with the team has been rocky. He’s not been the player the Bulls want, and his attitude hasn’t been great, which led to his benching. For his part, Parker told media that he didn’t think his removal from the lineup would be permanent.

Via Chicago Tribune:

“I’m not expecting it to be (permanent),” Parker said. “Everybody is telling me the truth and that’s just to stay ready. They’re not telling me things I want to hear. They’re not pointing fingers. And personally, I know I’ve done my job to embrace Jim as the head coach. I’ve been nothing but welcoming of him. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

It’s hard to say for certain what will happen with Parker, but it does seem at this juncture that he’s more likely to be traded than he is to be reinserted into the Chicago lineup.

Then again, it will be difficult to trade Parker for anything substantive. His deal is expiring after this season, with a team option for next, but it comes at a whopping at $20 million price tag. That will be hard for teams to swallow, and the best choice for the Bulls might be just to eat Parker’s deal for this season and keep their cap flexibility for next.

Stephen Curry talks with astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live about moon landing comments

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Was Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry just using his moon landing comments to sell his shoes? That’s what it seemed like to me, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.

Meanwhile, Curry has gone on his little PR tour in the wake of his boneheaded “joke” about the moon landing being fake. It’s included talking to astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live this week, and two had a discussion about Curry being more judicious with his words.

The video started with Curry essentially making a kind of public apology directly to Kelly. His words were, in part:

“It was important for me to understand, one the magnitude of things that I say and my comments how much weight they carry, joking or not.

For me to reflect on the last week, it’s been one of those situations where I had President Obama contact me, you [Kelly] and one other astronaut. [You all] really wanted to educate me on how significant the moon landing was — obviously it was real — but in terms of the sense national pride, and how that exploration fo mankind has pushed boundaries and limits on what is possible.”

Kelly went on to remark that he felt like the less-harmful conspiracy theories — like the moon landing or the Flat Earth theory — helped lead folks into the realm that big conspiracies might be true.

Meanwhile teams like the Sacramento Kings are running videos trolling Curry for not believing in very recent history. At least that’s one good thing to come out of this.

You can head over to Stephen Curry’s Instagram and watch the full video of the talk with Kelly.