The Miami Heat will look to make it six wins in their last seven outings when they hit Staples Center for a road matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday.
Miami, either snapping out of its midseason malaise or simply feasting on some home cooking, has started showing signs of life after fears of complacency—or sheer boredom—nearly pressed the panic button prematurely.
Wednesday marks the start of a six-game West Coast road swing for the Heat, who open with a Clippers team they defeated 102-97 in early November.
Of course, this isn't the same L.A. team Miami edged the first time around.
The Clippers lost All-Star point guard Chris Paul to a separated shoulder on Jan. 3, but they've held onto their Pacific Division lead without him. L.A. is 11-5 since CP3 went down, although a cupcake schedule is beginning to stiffen up.
The Clippers have fallen short in two of their last three trips to the hardwood, the most recent defeat coming by way of a buzzer-beating three-point bomb by Denver Nuggets guard Randy Foye Monday night.
Despite their different recent paths, both teams take the floor with the same chance of securing a statement victory.
For the Clippers, this could be a resounding mark of their arrival to the NBA's elite ranks. For the Heat, it could be yet another sign this league still belongs to South Beach.
|Miami Heat||L.A. Clippers|
|Field-Goal Percentage Allowed||46.0||44.5|
Time: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 10:30 p.m. ET
Location: Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul, out (shoulder)
How Miami Wins
By leaning on the Dwyane Wade of old—as opposed to the old Dwyane Wade who's shifted in and out of the training room for most of the season—as it's started to again of late.
Panic nearly became all-out terror when the 32-year-old's ongoing battle with his balky knees cost him a season-long four consecutive games in mid-January. However, the recently named 10-time All-Star has started silencing all sirens by working his way back over his last four outings to the production levels that made him the original king of Wade County.
"My (fourth) game back, I was feeling a lot better," Wade said after blitzing the New York Knicks for 22 points in Saturday's 106-91 win, via Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "Coach did a good job putting me in the spots I could be successful."
Those spots have included more time with Miami's second unit, a group that allows Wade to serve in the primary role he used to fill before LeBron James' arrival in 2010. With more than 11 assists a night coming from Miami's two All-Star starters, coach Erik Spoelstra is searching for as many as touches for his dynamic duo as he can find.
The Heat's key in this game, as it has often been throughout the Big Three era, will be complementing their talented twosome with an active, aggressive Chris Bosh.
Bosh doesn't have the workload of a typical All-Star (12.0 field-goal attempts per game), but his ability to space the floor (.534/.358/.811 shooting slash) has helped power the league's most efficient offense. With Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Jordan (14.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) lurking in L.A.'s interior, Bosh will need to pull his counterpart away from the basket to free up attacking lanes for James and Wade to exploit as only they can.
Offense is rarely Miami's issue, though. The Heat have reached triple-digits in seven of their last nine games and haven't been held below 90 points since Dec. 10.
Statistically, stopping the Clippers isn't easy. L.A. sits just two spots back of Miami in offensive efficiency.
Take Paul out of the driver's seat, though, and this machine loses some of its power.
Still, it boasts one mighty offensive force in Blake Griffin (26.0 points, 4.4 assists, 55.4 percent shooting over his last 16 games) and gobs of shooters around him. That collection grew with the addition of former Los Angeles Lakers gunner Sasha Vujacic (a career 37.1 percent three-point sniper), signed to a 10-day contract Monday, via Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.
If Miami gives Griffin the Jeremy Lin treatment, it could muster more offense than an already weakened L.A. squad can match. The Heat will need to get defensive down the stretch to reclaim their championship throne, but a dose of overwhelming offense should be enough to keep them in the win column.
How Los Angeles Wins
Admittedly, this is easier said than done, but the Clippers have to keep the Heat away from the basket.
Miami's league-leading 50.9 field-goal percentage is staggering. The NBA hasn't seen a team clear the 50-percent shooting mark since the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns.
The Heat are unbelievably efficient inside the paint. Miami leads the league on shots within five feet of the basket (67.9 percent) and on those five-to-nine feet from the cup (47.2). It's still effective outside of the lane, but checks in at more temporal levels: 41.3 percent 10-to-14 feet (tied for eighth), 42.4 percent 15-to-19 feet (ninth), 36.9 percent from three (tied for 10th).
Thwarting Miami's drives is a must. Keeping Jordan on the floor is even more important. Beyond him, L.A. is woefully short on rim protection (Griffin has the second-highest block average with 0.6 swats a night).
"He's leading the league in rebounding and is an anchor for us defensively," Griffin said during a failed pitch to bring his frontcourt partner with him to the All-Star Game, via Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles.
While Griffin's campaigning fell short, Jordan's importance can be put in full display if L.A. pulls the upset. Not only is Jordan the last line of defense against Miami's attack, he's also best equipped to milk Miami's glass deficiencies. The Heat have the fifth-worst rebounding rate in the league (47.9 percent), so he can buy extra offensive chances or close out defensive stops.
Between Jordan and Griffin (9.7 rebounds) L.A. should win the battle of the boards. It needs to take the turnover war.
Miami forces more giveaways than any team in the league (17.5 per game), but it's had problems with its own ball control (16.1 turnovers per 100 possessions, 23rd). A forced turnover—or even a long rebound—is almost as good as a basket for the Clippers, who get 15.9 percent of their points off fast breaks (fifth-highest).
Darren Collison has done an admirable job stepping in for Paul (again), but he's not nearly the same type of playmaker. During his 17 starts, Collison has dished out a solid, but unspectacular, 6.1 assists.
The Clippers have to attack before the Heat can get their defense set. While Miami has seen some statistical regression at that end—it's headed for its first bottom-20 defensive rating (15th) of the Big Three era—this team can still stifle an opposing offense when it's fully engaged.
It will take a(nother) MVP-caliber performance from Griffin and a torrid night out of the perimeter firing squad, but L.A. has the weapons to claim its sixth straight home win over Miami.
Miami has the tendency to back itself into a corner, waiting to respond to a challenge rather than issue one of its own.
If it sleepwalks into Staples Center, it could start this crucial road trip off on the wrong foot.
Which team will escape this interconference clash with a win?
The Clippers are far from a pushover, but without CP3, this is a team the Heat should handle. Knowing that beforehand isn't always a good thing for Miami, particularly with two-plus months still remaining before its real season gets underway.
Still, the Heat enter this game after a full night's rest and have two more to follow the contest. They can expend 48 minutes of maximum effort, and do so in front of a national TV audience, no less.
At full strength, L.A. would have a hard time keeping up with Miami. Remove Paul from the equation, and the superstar scale tilts in an insurmountable manner toward the defending champs.
The Clippers will give the Heat a push—then realize they've awakened a sleeping giant.
Heat 109, Clippers 101