The Miami Heat have won three in a row, but face quite the test when the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers come to town. The Clippers have lost three of four, but defeated the defending champions at the Staples Center back on November 14.
Moreover, the team could have both Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups back for this game (h/t Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News). Their presence would make the game even more of an uphill battle for Miami, and keep the game close from start to finish.
But let's not forget that this game is at American Airlines Arena, where the Heat have gone 20-3 this season. Arguably, their earlier loss to Los Angeles can be viewed as a fluke, since they have gone just 12-10 on the road.
The Clippers have also struggled somewhat on the road, going just 15-11 compared to 20-5 at home, but they will enter South Beach ready to pull off another upset. They improved too much last summer to just go through a midseason collapse, and this will be a game about sending a message. Lob City is a force to be reckoned with, and any doubters had better watch out.
Thus, expect this game to be high-scoring and fast-paced, with the adrenaline pumping from beginning to end. Throw in the national television aspect, and you've got yourself a game.
Time: Friday, February 8, 8 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Sun Sports, PRIME TICKET
Records: Los Angeles Clippers (35-16) vs. Miami Heat (32-14)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, February 7, 12:33 p.m. EST
Injuries: Trey Thompkins (knee, out), Chauncey Billups (foot, day-to-day), Chris Paul (knee, day-to-day), Blake Griffin (hamstring, day-to-day), Jamal Crawford (shoulder, day-to-day), Chris Bosh (illness, day-to-day) via ESPN
Key Storyline: Heat Look to Best Clippers on Home Court
The Miami Heat last faced the Los Angeles Clippers on November 14, and the game was forgettable on their end. Despite a close score of 107-100, the defending champs were outplayed from start to finish and wound up on the losing end. Chris Bosh had just 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting, Dwyane Wade had just six thanks to playing with a sprained foot and not even 30 points from reigning MVP LeBron James could save Miami.
The Clippers were led by 20 points and 14 rebounds from Blake Griffin, Chris Paul chipped in 16 points and 10 assists and Jamal Crawford scored 22 off the bench.
But that was earlier in the season, and Miami was not playing at 100 percent. More importantly, it was at the Staples Center, and the Heat have always struggled on the road since the formation of the Big Three.
The scene has changed to sunny South Beach for Round 2, and the shoe is now on the other foot. The Clippers may have Billups and Paul back for this game, but Crawford and Griffin's statuses are up in the air.
Thus, Miami needs to take full advantage of Los Angeles being short-handed and be in full control of the game from the opening tip until the final buzzer. This means showcasing the signature fast offense, but also showing a sense of urgency on defense and doing everything possible to slow down the speedy attack of Lob City.
If just one key stop can be made on the defensive side, it could be enough to swing the pendulum in Miami's favor and defeat Los Angeles, sending the Heat to their fourth straight win.
A lax defensive effort, however, would expose the Heat as a weak interior team, which could damn them in the playoffs.
Key Matchup: Chris Bosh vs. DeAndre Jordan
Assuming that Bosh is over his illness and is able to suit up for this game, it is absolutely critical that he have a good game. He is the Heat's starting center, but Miami is the worst rebounding team in the league.
This can be attributed to one factor. Though he plays good on-ball defense, the 6'11", 235 pound Bosh plays more like a scoring power forward. Rather than stick to an interior game like a pure defensive 5, he prefers to use his jump shot.
On the season, Bosh is averaging 17.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, but has posted just 3.8 boards over his last five games. Playing against a great low-post player and defender in DeAndre Jordan, that's going to be a problem.
Jordan is also 6'11", but has more overall size than Bosh at 265 pounds. He is only averaging nine points and 7.3 rebounds per game, plus 1.4 blocks, and has played a key role in the Clippers' defensive performance this year. The Clippers may only rank 18th in rebounding, but Jordan's ability to give opposing centers a hard time in the paint has helped them rank fourth in points allowed.
This means that Bosh needs to step outside his comfort zone and do his best to defeat Jordan at his own game. He must work the low post and trade in his jump shot for layups and dunks. Defensively, he must use his experience and exploit Jordan's weaknesses, not letting him rise up for a dunk under any circumstances.
If he can do all of that without a problem, Miami has a shot at winning. Otherwise, the team could be sunk from the get-go.
X-Factor: Ray Allen
The Heat may be on a winning streak, but one man who has not been doing much during it is sixth man Ray Allen, who is in the midst of a slump. Allen has posted 10.7 points and shot 42 percent from three-point range in 25.5 minutes per game off the bench this season, which is not at all bad for a 37-year-old.
However, Allen has not performed well at all over his last five games. Through that stretch, he has averaged just 3.8 points and shot just 20 percent from the field. From downtown, he has made just 23 percent of his attempts.
The facts are simple. The Los Angeles Clippers are a team that likes to run and score a lot of points, and Miami cannot keep up with them unless Allen breaks out of his funk.
This means that he cannot hesitate on the catch-and-shoot under any circumstances, nor can he pass on a three-point shot just because he isn't absolutely wide open. This is the same man who is the all-time leader in three-pointers made, and he needs to approach this game as though he owns the area beyond the arc.
All that Allen needs to do is score maybe 10 points, and that will be enough. Otherwise, the Heat lose the season series and have a lot of question marks surrounding them for the rest of the season.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Willie Green
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Lamar Odom
C: DeAndre Jordan
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: LeBron James
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Chris Bosh
One thing about this game is certain. The Clippers are likely going to be without a key player in Blake Griffin, and that could seriously hurt the team's chances of winning.
However, despite Griffin's absence, the Clippers will defeat the Miami Heat once again.
Chris Paul will return to the lineup and be in full playmaking mode, guiding Lob City with excellent leadership and overwhelming the Heat with key three-pointers and thunderous dunks. Jamal Crawford will also return, scoring in double figures once again as he continues to make his case for Sixth Man of the Year.
Of course, that isn't to say that the Heat will not put up a respectable effort. A healthy Dwyane Wade will help keep the score close, as will LeBron James and his triple-threat nature. Ray Allen will not have the best of nights, but hit three-pointers that prove important to the final outcome.
Unfortunately, it will be Bosh who is the goat of this game. Jordan's defense will prove to be too smothering, and his weaknesses at the 5 will be fully exposed. The Heat may be the defending champs, but they certainly won't play like them against the Clippers.
The score will be close, but not one that works in Miami's favor.
Los Angeles Clippers 108, Miami Heat 102