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MIAMI — Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside was fined … but not suspended.
He is expected to start Tuesday night when the Heat (41-36) take on the Atlanta Hawks (22-55) at AmericanAirlines Arena.
With a win, the Heat would secure their 20th playoff berth in the past 30 years. Miami could have clinched Saturday, but its eight-game home winning streak was snapped in a somewhat shocking 110-109 loss to the struggling Brooklyn Nets in overtime.
That game left Whiteside irate. He played 20 of a possible 53 minutes, sitting out all of the fourth quarter and overtime.
Whiteside, who is nearly halfway through a four-year, $98 million contract, can opt out of the final season, becoming a free agent in July 2019. And that, if only for the moment, seemed possible night when he spoke to the media.
Using profanity several times, he was upset that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took him out late in the loss.
“Why are we matching up?” Whiteside asked about Spoelstra’s decision to go with smaller players in crunch time. “We’ve got one of the best centers in the league (himself). We shouldn’t be matching up. It’s annoying.
“I don’t understand. There are a lot of teams that don’t have a good center. It’s frustrating. … It’s tough.”
On Monday, Whiteside apologized, saying he spoke in frustration. But in Spoelstra’s defense, Whiteside was playing only his second game since missing nine in a row with a hip injury. Whiteside was told to remove himself from the game when he felt winded.
On Tuesday, the Heat will play a Hawks team that snapped its five-game losing streak with a 94-88 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday. Atlanta’s Tyler Dorsey came off the bench to score a team-high 19 points. Another reserve, Mike Muscala, added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite that win, the Hawks are limping toward the finish line, playing without several of their top players who are injured and out for the rest of the season. That list includes point guard Dennis Schroder (sprained left ankle) and Kent Bazemore (right knee).
The loss of Schroder stings because he leads the team in scoring (19.4 points per game) and assists (6.2). He also made 84.9 percent of his free throws and 48 percent of his two-point tries while playing in 67 games.
With Schroder out, much of Atlanta’s offense is running through Taurean Prince, who had only five points but a game-high eight assists in the win over Orlando.
Prince, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound small forward, was Atlanta’s first-round pick, No. 12 overall, in 2016. He averaged 5.7 points and 0.9 assists as a rookie but has improved significantly since.
This season, Prince is averaging 13.6 points and 2.5 assists. His free-throw accuracy has improved from 78.7 percent to 83.7 percent. And his true shooting percentage, when accounting for two-pointers and 3-pointers, is up 51 points to .509.
Will Prince’s improvement be the catalyst toward an upset win over Miami? Will Whiteside be a distraction, a dominating force or somewhere in the middle? And will the Heat clinch a playoff berth after failing to accomplish the feat on Saturday?