When the Clippers play the Heat tonight, Miami will definitely be playing without Shaquille O'Neal and may be without Dwyane Wade (who hasn't played since spraining his wrist a week ago). And they've just found out that they will also be without coach Pat Riley, who will take a leave of absence to have knee and hip surgery.
While the Clippers have been the biggest disappointment in the Western Conference, the defending champion Heat are clearly the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season. Shaq's injury is not nearly enough to explain away the fact that the Heat are currently out of the playoff picture in the pathetic East; an old team getting older, and general complacency would seem to be more complete explanations. But I think the thinking in South Beach is that they can coast during the regular season, get into the playoffs in a middle seed and then start to play. It worked for them last year.
This game remains a difficult test for the Clippers. My guess is that Wade will play - he's made his reputation playing through injuries. And while it's nice not to have to face Shaq, the way Alonzo Mourning dominates the Clippers (Chris Kaman in particular), it's still no picnic in the middle. When the Clippers beat the Heat back in December, Zo had 16 points on 7 for 8 shooting, along with 11 rebounds and 4 blocks. Zo's age and medical history limited him to 30 minutes, or the Heat might have won that game.
Kaman played much better in his first matchup with Yao this season, so maybe he'll do better against Zo also. But back in December Chris got the early hook from MDSr in favor of Aaron Williams.
It will be interesting to see what MDSr does with QRoss. In the last 5 games, Q has averaged fewer than 10 minutes per. If it's just matchups, then MDSr will start Q against Wade tonight (assuming Wade starts); Q played 37 minutes against Wade back in December. But it seems to me it's more than that, as Tim Thomas has become the starter at small forward, and gotten more and more minutes.
Elton Brand had a monster game in the first meeting, with 33 points and 17 boards. I don't see how Udonis Haslem or Antoine Walker can handle him, so unless interim coach Ron Rothstein decides to put Mourning on Brand, look for EB to have another big game tonight. Hopefully he can get off to another fast start, but sustain it this time.
For Miami, it's all about Wade. With Shaq out, not even the Lakers are more dependent on a single player. The extent to which the Clippers can contain him will determine the outcome of this game. Fortunately for the Clippers, the Heat have not been good shooting the three this season, making only 32.6%. They were an Arctic-cold 3 for 25 in the first game, which is more or less why they lost. They're not shy about shooting them (as the 25 and the season average attempts of 17.5 will attest), so let's hope they don't heat up out there as Clippers opponents seem to.
If Kaman can hold his own against Mourning, if the Clippers can take care of the ball, if Wade has a mortal-esque performance and if the Heat stay cool from deep, the Clippers should win this game.