The Clippers continue their 4-game road trip of despair this afternoon, when they take on Miami in a road showdown. Fresh off of their gutsy win in Orlando Friday night, the Clippers stumble into Sunday's ABC matchup having just received the news that they'll be without Austin Rivers for the next 4-6 weeks as he recovers from a broken hand suffered against the Magic. Pablo Prigioni, the team's other backup point guard, is a game-time decision with a head contusion also suffered in Orlando.
After the team's last road trip pitted them against 5 very good opponents in a 7-night span, this one may prove to test the Clippers even more, for while the opponents are easier, the teams are still no joke (except maybe Philadelphia... just saying), and if Friday's game was any indication, they'll have to find ways to win games where they don't shoot the ball well, while missing key pieces of the rotation. If the Clippers have to play today's game without Prigioni as well, Lance Stephenson and Jamal Crawford will be forced into backup ball-handling duties behind Chris Paul, and while both of those guys are certainly capable of bringing the ball up, and both of them are capable of creating offense for themselves and others, neither is really the guy you want to depend on to create with the ball in their hands every play--they're both better when they're picking their spots.
Then there's the issue of Chris Paul's minutes, which will probably have to be at or above the 36 that he played in Orlando. For the duration of Austin's (and Pablo's) absence, Paul will be forced to play even more minutes than his already-rising totals (32.5 on the season, 34.1 last 10 games) at a time when DeAndre Jordan's playing time has had to skyrocket as well due to Cole Aldrich's regression. We knew all along that his prior level of play was unsustainably good--but I think it's just as likely that this last stretch is unsustainably bad, and Cole will find his game again. All in all, the ticky-tack injuries, high minutes, and regressed play (even J.J. Redick is coming back down to Earth) have quickly turned the Clippers into a squad that's desperately limping into the All-Star break, hoping to recuperate and get ready for hosting San Antonio and Golden State in their first two games after the break.
Speaking of Cole's unsustainably bad play, we should talk about Lance Stephenson's recent unsustainable level of production. Lance can ball--there's no doubt about that, but he's a high variance player: one play he'll give you the assist of the season, and the next he'll throw the ball out of bounds. One play, he'll lock down a superstar, and the next he'll get lost and let up an open three. As he's come along, we've seen a little better focus from Lance, and while it's easy to let confirmation bias let everyone see the Lance they want to see, it's looked like Doc Rivers and the coaching staff have brought him along very well and he's now starting to get the offensive and defensive systems. That said, he's going to have to drop off of a cliff sometime soon. Lance has been in the rotation for the last 4 games, and he's shooting 79% from the field and 50% from deep. Unless his time on the bench turned the embattled young wing into the greatest player in the history of basketball, those numbers will drop off. It's important to try and stay just as balanced on Lance when he regresses as we should be trying to be now, while he's peaking. Either way, the Clippers will have to hope that Stephenson's hot play continues in the final three pre-All-Star games. I think they still come away from Orlando with a W without Lance's stellar second half performance, but it certainly wouldn't have been as easy.
On the other side of the ball, the Miami Heat are an interesting team. They're half a game out of third in the Eastern Conference, but it's hard to find them that threatening. They certainly have talented players--Goran Dragic, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside are all All-Star caliber players--but they just haven't put it together this season. It's hard to tell quite what the issue is, but when I saw this team play in person from the press box at Staples Center in January, they didn't look like a team with an identity. Even without Miami having reached its full potential, this isn't going to be an easy game for the Clippers--the Heat boast a 16-9 home record, and the Clippers will have to adjust to the absence of several rotation players (which could mean minutes for C.J. Wilcox). That said, it feels as though Miami has been a little disappointing this year.
In the big picture, the Clippers are currently 3 losses behind Oklahoma City for the 3 seed, and 4 losses ahead of Memphis for the 5 seed. OKC plays Phoenix and New Orleans before the All-Star Break, and Memphis plays Portland and Brooklyn, making it likely that neither team loses, and making it important for the Clippers to win their next three games and go into the All-Star break strong--because coming out of the break, the schedule becomes brutal, and they'll need all the help they can get to hold on to the 4 seed.