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Clippers-Heat preview: Challenging the champs

The Clippers are coming off a disheartening loss in Orlando last night to face the defending champion Heat. The Clippers have never beaten LeBron and his superfriends in Miami.

Stephen Dunn
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

November 7th, 2013, 4:00 PM
AmericanAirlines Arena
TNT, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Mario Chalmers
J.J. Redick SG Dwyane Wade
Jared Dudley SF LeBron James
Blake Griffin PF Chris Bosh
DeAndre Jordan C Udonis Haslem
Advanced Stats (2012-2013 Season)
91.1 (19th of 30) Pace 90.7 (23rd of 30)
110.6 (4th of 30) ORtg 112.3 (2nd of 30)
103.6 (8th of 30) DRtg 103.7 (9th of 30)
Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out

Matt Barnes (quad contusion) doubtful

The Back Story (2012-13 Results, the teams split the season series 1-1):

The Big Picture:

The season is young and the coach and system and new, but even taking all of that into consideration, the Clippers have been a little schizo so far this season. The Warriors and Rockets have one loss each -- those losses coming at the hands of the Clippers by double digit margins. The Lakers (without Kobe Bryant) and the Magic have handed the Clippers their two losses -- dominating the fourth quarter in each case. While it must be said that the Magic so far at least seem much better than anyone had predicted, it's still disconcerting to lose fourth quarter leads to supposedly weak competition -- especially when you look at the Clippers' schedule this month. The Lakers and Magic and Kings? Those were the easy games out of the first 13. The eight games stretch starting tonight in Miami is particularly brutal. If the Clippers just need some time to work out the kinks in the new system, guess what? Time is up. It's not as if a 7-9 record at Thanksgiving will be the end of the season, but it wouldn't be a lot of fun -- and it's a real possibility given the schedule.

The Antagonist:

The Heat have seemed to start a bit slow every year in the LeBron James era. The NBA season is long, the great teams know that, and they tend to pace themselves. The Clippers winning streak last season came in December; the Heat crushed that streak with one of their own -- that lasted for 27 games in February and March and pretty much carried them through the Playoffs. When would you rather be at your best? So a couple losses in the first week for the champs, while surprising, is probably not any cause for alarm in South Beach. It must be said that Miami seems a little ordinary so far -- they've got the two losses, and the wins haven't been of the awesome variety either. But you can expect that they'll gear it up at some point -- maybe even tonight. This is almost exactly the same team that won their second consecutive title last June. Twelve of their top 13 players from last season are back, and the lone loss, Mike Miller, played 900 minutes all season and averaged fewer than five points per game. The roster additions are reclamation projects of recent high draft picks -- Greg Oden (first overall pick in 2007) and Michael Beasley (second overall pick in 2008) -- but neither is in the rotation at this point, but Beasley logging four minutes and Oden yet to play on the young season. I guess if it ain't broke don't fix it, but the question for the Heat is whether the good teams that made changes in the off-season (say a team like the Clippers) did enough to close the gap.

The Subplots

  • After the game. Coach Nick of Basketball Breakdown is hosting a Google Hangout after the game to discuss, for those of you who are interested.
  • The Questionable Blogger. I was able to ask some questions of Kevin from the Heat blog Hot Hot Hoops earlier this week so be sure to check out his answers. Frankly, if you've only got time to read one post, stop reading this one and go read that one, because he actually knows something about the Heat. You can also check out my answers to their questions on HHH.
  • Comparison of key metrics. During the regular season last year, the Heat had the second most efficient offense and the ninth best defense. In the last decade or so, no team has won a title with a lower rated defense. So for the currently 29th Clippers, that gives you some idea of where the defense needs to head eventually. Historically, you don't have to be elite -- but you need to be top third in the league generally speaking.
  • MVP Race. Barring an injury, it's pretty difficult to imagine that anyone in the league is going to perform at a higher level all season than LeBron James, who is a truly amazing athlete and player. James has won back-to-back MVPs and four of the last five -- but the best player doesn't always win the MVP, and in fact, the voters are invariably looking for any viable alternative when they grow a little tired of voting for the same guy over and over. As dominant as Michael Jordan was in the 90s, he never won three straight MVPs. You have to go back to Larry Bird in the mid 80s for the last time anyone did. Charles Barkley in 1993, Karl Malone in 1997 and Derrick Rose in 2011 were by no means better than Jordan/James those seasons -- but they were very, very good, and their teams were very, very good. Particularly if the team is perceived to have overachieved or has reached previously unattained heights (i.e. 1993 Suns), the voters will migrate toward that candidate. All of which is to say -- if anyone is going to challenge LeBron for the MVP this season, it could be Chris Paul; but it will have to be about more than statistics. The Clippers will have to have the best record in the Western Conference to make it a possibility -- if they have the best regular season record in the league, I'd say the odds of a CP3 MVP would be pretty good. (Remember, MVP is a regular season award.)
  • Paul must play big. The Clippers will have to have a huge game from Chris Paul if they are going to have a chance tonight. The Heat, with their big three, just get by at the point with Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Paul is going to have to dominate his matchup tonight, as it's the primary advantage the Clippers have. Through five games this season, the Clippers are 3-0 when Paul shoots over 50%, 0-2 when he shoots under 50%. It won't be quite that simple tonight, but it's clear they won't win if he has an off-night.
  • Remember 2010? It's seems a bit quaint now, but remember when the Big 3 decided to take their talents to South Beach? At the time there seemed to be an open question as to who would be the top dog for the Heat. Wade had spent his entire career there, so it seemed reasonable to think that perhaps he'd want to be the main man with the game on the line. And for that first season, Miami did seem to struggle a bit figuring out a pecking order. Well that's not a problem anymore. This is LeBron James' team. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes per game. He takes the big shots with the game on the line. He wins MVPs. He's indisputably the man, and Wade is a (fantastic) supporting player on more or less the same level as Bosh.
  • Defending James. LeBron is tough for anyone to defend -- he's not the best player in the league for nothing. Jared Dudley is by no means ideal for the assignment, but he may be about as good as anyone the Clippers have been able to run out there in a while. James is bigger, stronger and quicker than Dudley, but Jared may just be big enough, strong enough, quick enough to at least contend with the King. He's smart, he's tenacious, and he'll work hard, we know that much. As I said before, he's probably the best option the Clippers have had for some time. Unfortunately, if Matt Barnes is out, he may be the only option. Who else is there? J.J. Redick? Jamal Crawford? Willie Green? Rookie Reggie Bullock? Antawn Jamison? Given that James will play a lot of four, and that Dudley will have to rest at some point, it's likely to be Blake Griffin on James if Barnes is out. After watching what Omri Casspi did to Griffin on Monday, I shudder to think about what's going to happen if he tries to guard LeBron. Maybe he'll rise to the occasion and surprise me.
  • Griffin. Blake Griffin is one of three players averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds on the young season. He is one of two averaging 20/10 and three assists. He is shooting a career high 56% from the field so far. He made 7-13 perimeter shots last night in Orlando. These are all things the TNT Inside the NBA crew could point out about Griffin's season so far. Instead, this is what they'll say: "Blake Griffin needs to impose his will on the game, he needs to be dominant, he didn't work at all this summer, the Clippers aren't contenders because Griffin hasn't gotten better." It's like my friend Dawn always said, "You buy 'em books and buy 'em books and all they do is eat the covers."
  • Allen and Redick. The NBA player to whom J.J. Redick is most often compared is Ray Allen. Both are elite long range shooters, both work tirelessly off the ball, running their defenders off screens to get open. Rivers coached Allen in Boston for several years and now has Redick as his starting two. The two of them will be opposite each other for long stretches tonight, which will be interesting, as each knows well the tricks to getting open perimeter looks.
  • Three point shooting. The Clippers will have to defend the three point line tonight. Allen, Chalmers, Battier, James, Cole ... heck, pretty much everyone on the roster. Even Bosh has taken 2.5 per game this season and is making them. It's easier to list the rotation guys you don't have to guard at the three point line -- that's Haslem and Andersen. You can let Wade shoot out there too, but only because he's more dangerous driving.
  • Small ball. The Heat have been starting Udonis Haslem (16 minutes per game) and Chris Bosh (33) in the front court. (Bosh missed the last game for the birth of his daughter, but is expected to play tonight.) Haslem is about 6'7 but is wide, and qualifies as a big, I guess. Chris Anderson has been playing about 15 minutes per game. That leaves about 16 minutes each game so far where the Heat are "small" with LeBron or Shane Battier or stretch four Rashard Lewis at the four. If Barnes is healthy, that might actually be helpful for the Clippers, who might be able to limit the exposure of having one of their ineffective reserve bigs (Byron Mullens is the lesser of evils at this point) in the game. But if Barnes is unable to play, the Clippers still don't have many options, since Dudley is going to be needed on LeBron so much, and is going to need some rest as well.
  • Battier's defense. One of the more interesting subplots to watch tonight will be the defense of Shane Battier. When the Heat have gone small against the Clippers in the past, Battier has spent significant time defending Griffin. You would not expect him to be strong enough to handle Griffin, but he's done surprisingly well. Battier will likely also take a turn on Jamal Crawford when Crawford is in the game, and if he can slow Jamal then the Clippers second unit production, which has been anemic already, will grind to a halt.
  • Speaking of which. It's difficult to express just how bad the Clippers bench has been this season. Barnes wasn't playing well before he was hurt, and now he's probably out for this game. Backup point guard Darren Collison is shooting 28% and has more turnovers (eight) than field goals (seven) through five games. We expected the backup bigs to be terrible, and they have fulfilled expectations. Jamal has been Jamal -- and thank FSM for that because no Clipper reserve has been anywhere near adequate. I fully expect Collison and Barnes to be fine eventually, but this stretch of tough games could get pretty ugly if they don't step up soon.
  • Jamesian. I'm not suggesting that Blake Griffin is anywhere close to the player James is -- he's not -- but he is establishing himself as a similarly unique combination of talents. On a per 36 minute basis, Griffin and James were two of the three players in the league who averaged 20 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists per game last season. The third was Kevin Durant. That's not bad company for Griffin to be in.
  • Good against good teams, bad on the road. The Clippers have been very good against good teams this season (wins of the Warriors and Rockets) -- but they have not be good on the road (losses to the Lakers and Magic, gave up a lead in Sacramento before winning). So which trend will prevail tonight? Will the challenge of facing the defending champs bring out the best in the Clippers? Or will they continue to struggle on the road.
  • Clippers-Heat rivalry. In recent years, the Clippers have done very well against the Heat in L.A. However, that success has not translated to South Beach. In the LeBron era, the teams have held their serve in every game.
  • Connections. Rivers coached Ray Allen in Boston for five seasons, where they won a ring together. Heat assistant coach Bob McAdoo is the only league MVP in Clippers franchise history, having won the honor in 1975 with the Buffalo Braves before the team moved west. Battier and Redick were each Wooden Award winners at Duke and each stayed in Durham four years, but they were never teammates. Redick arrived two seasons after Battier left. Griffin and Beasley were Big 12 adversaries as freshman, when, surprisingly, Beasley was considered the far better pro prospect. Beasley and Dudley were teammates in Phoenix last season.
  • Get the Heat perspective at Hot Hot Hoops
  • Shakespearean reference:

    Sonnet CLIII (153)

    Cupid laid by his brand, and fell asleep:
    A maid of Dian's this advantage found,
    And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
    In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
    Which borrow'd from this holy fire of Love
    A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
    And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
    Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
    But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new-fired,
    The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
    I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
    And thither hied, a sad distemper'd guest,
    But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
    Where Cupid got new fire-my mistress' eyes.

    Happily, we have another sonnet to interpret. Sadly, it's the second game of a back-to-back, and we have little time to devote to our literary pursuits. This is the penultimate of Shakespeare's 154 Sonnets, and both of he final two are based on a poem from Greek Anthology. Thank goodness the internet is here with an analysis for us. Of course, Citizen Zhiv may have a different take -- perhaps something about wishing to stop loving the Clippers because of the pain they've always caused, but never being able to.