In the second game of their East Coast road trip, the Clippers match up with a Miami team that has won two in a row.
The Big Picture
After a disappointing stretch of 2-5 ball, the Clippers have reeled off three straight wins to right the ship and keep pace in an increasingly top-heavy Western Conference. Those wins may not have come against the most grueling competition (Pelicans, Blazers, and Magic), but an ability to beat the teams that you’re supposed to is one of those key characteristics of a contender, and the Clippers have been doing it well, winning 11 of 12 against teams under .500.
One of the most pleasant developments of the past few games has been Austin Rivers’ fiery play. He was one of the lone bright spots in last week’s game against the Warriors and it seems that the concussion that forced him to miss the Trail Blazers game did nothing to mess with his suddenly-sweet shooting stroke (13/20 from deep in his last three games). If the burning embers of nepotism talk had yet to be snuffed, let’s hope that Austin’s team-high 25 points and stellar defense against the Magic in place of injured Luc Richard Mbah a Moute took care of that. LRMAM has already been ruled out of tonight’s game and the Clippers will need another solid contribution from Rivers on both ends to put the Heat away. When he’s playing at a high level, he serves as a versatile weapon that can mesh with virtually any combination of starters or bench players.
A lot has been made of the Clippers recent defensive slide, which has now dropped them to 4th in defensive efficiency league-wide. If you look a bit closer, however, it gets even worse. In their last 15 games, the Clippers are the proud owners of a 107.7 defensive rating, 22nd in the league over that span. Sure fatigue plays a role, especially in the Clippers’ rotation-heavy scheme that mandates constant physical and mental focus, but it’s difficult to blame such a profound regression entirely on a stacked schedule. If there’s any game for them to get back on track defensively, it’s this one against a Heat team that ranks near the bottom of the league in almost every offensive category.
The first year of post-Dwyane Wade basketball is not off to a hot start, as the team has limped to a 9-17 record and only can look down upon the lowly Nets and Sixers in the standings. However, after enduring a brutal five-game losing streak, in which they were hamstrung by injuries and the only non-playoff team they faced was the slumping Hawks, the Heat have found their footing with consecutive victories over the Wizards and Pacers.
The team welcomed Justise Winslow back to the court for the first time in almost a month after being sidelined due to a nagging wrist injury and converted point-center James Johnson is wreaking havoc on opposing second units since his weeklong injury hiatus. Consider the return of Josh Richardson as well, and Miami’s roster is more formidable than it has been in weeks. The young squad is led by their man in the middle, Hassan Whiteside, or as I like to think of him, the best DeAndre Jordan impersonator that side of the Mississippi. Whiteside went bonkers against the Pacers to the tune of 26 points and 22 rebounds, almost single-handedly willing them to win a game that saw the normally-reliable Goran Dragic struggle to make much of an impact.
From their anchor in the middle to the sophomore Winslow, the Heat have plenty of defensive threats, as evidenced by their 103.4 defensive rating that ranks them 11th in the league. Where they really struggle is on the offensive end. In fact, thanks to a league-worst free throw percentage and a bottom-ten three-point percentage, their true shooting percentage of 50.9% is last in the league (for comparison, the Clippers rank sixth with 57.1%). They’ve gotten promising contributions all season from their sixth man, Tyler Johnson, who boasts a six-game double digit scoring streak coming into this one, and as they get healthier those numbers should see an uptick, but when it comes down to it, this team just has a hard time putting the ball in the hole.
The small forward carousel goes round and round — Doc Rivers has mercifully reduced Paul Pierce’s minutes despite his praise of The Truth’s defense (still no word on whether that was a delusion or just some sick joke) and the primary beneficiaries are Wesley Johnson and Alan Anderson. Wesley’s minutes are trending upwards since his return from injury, as he’s averaging 15 minutes per game over the Clippers’ last four. He can’t make a three from above the break to save his life, but he is still efficiently knocking them down from the corner and his freaky length and athleticism makes an immediate, positive impact on the defensive end. It’s great to have him back. Meanwhile, Alan Anderson is averaging a hair over 13 minutes per game in the same four-game stretch. He isn’t filling up the stat sheet by any stretch of the imagination, but as he continues to recover from his ankle injury it’s encouraging to see him in position to contribute. If he’s able to find his shot, I still believe that he can help this team.
Battle in the paint — Previous battles between Jordan and Whiteside haven’t been particularly notable, but a memorable clash between the two behemoths feels inevitable. Last year’s first and second NBA All-Defensive Team centers, respectively, both currently sit in the top-10 in blocks per game. Whiteside leads the league in rebounding (14.7 per game), but DeAndre is hot on his tail, third in the league with 12.6 per game. DJ is in second for field goal percentage, hitting on 65% of his shots, while Whiteside is tied for the second most points in the paint per game with 13.2. Both big men will have their hands full with the other and there should be no shortage of highlights coming from the painted area in this one.
What home court advantage? — The Miami Heat haven’t exactly made American Airlines Arena a scary place for visitors, winning a lower percentage of their games at home (.333) than on the road (.357). That’s bad news for them, as the Clippers have won a higher percentage of their games on the road (.769) than at home (.692).