The Big Picture:
It’s looking like the Clippers may have finally righted the ship. After a six-game losing streak (5 of which overlapped with the first five games of Chris Paul’s 7-game absence), L.A. has now won three in a row. A noticeably rusty Chris Paul had 14 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals in his return to action against Sacramento, a 106-98 victory. Austin Rivers is on a hot streak, averaging 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in his last two games while shooting over 60% from the field and 50% from deep. The three wins have been nice, but the Clippers have no choice but to keep winning if they want to keep pace with the Houston Rockets. Seven of L.A.’s next eight games are against sub-.500 opponents, and they’ll have to take care of business against these lottery teams if they want any hope of claiming the 3-seed. After their six-game slide had the Clippers as low as 7th in the conference, they now seem to be somewhat safely nestled into 4th, with a 1.5 game lead over 5th-place Utah. The focus now turns to making up ground on the Rockets, who have five fewer losses than the Clippers do.
What a fall it has been for the Miami Heat. Just two years after LeBron James left in free agency, they were back in the playoffs with a vengeance, earning the 3-seed (notably, via winning a 4-way tiebreaker) and advancing to the second round before falling in 7 games to the Toronto Raptors. Chris Bosh was forced away from the team with a blood clot issue, and this year’s Heat have plummeted to the basement of the conference, where their 11-27 record leaves them in 13th place, ahead of just the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. They’re still led by Goran Dragic, who averages 18.9 points and 6.6 assists per game. He’s a nice player but it’s probably not overly surprising that a team built around Dragic and Hassan Whiteside hasn’t done much. Their third-leading scorer, Tyler Johnson, injured his left foot in their last game and won’t play against the Clippers. Their fourth- and fifth-leading scorers, Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington, have each missed half of the team’s games. And their best young prospect, Justise Winslow, is going to miss the rest of the season with shoulder surgery. There isn’t much to say except that from the pre-CP3 Clippers perspective, we know how it goes sometimes. When it rains, it pours, and it’s pouring in south beach this season. At least they have a couple of LeBron championships to look back on fondly.
Miserable forwards: Without Blake Griffin, the Clippers haven’t gotten a lot from their forwards offensively. Luc Mbah a Moute, for all his defensive contributions, isn’t a scorer, and has broken double figures just twice in Griffin’s absence. That’s still better than Wesley Johnson, who has done it just once and is shooting 27% from deep on the season, and Paul Pierce, who managed to play his way out of Doc Rivers’ rotation. Brandon Bass has actually been the Clippers’ best forward in relief of Griffin, but the shortcomings of this group as a whole have forced Doc Rivers to turn to a three-guard lineup to bolster offensive firepower. Miami’s situation might be worse—they’re starting Luke Babbitt and Rodney McGruder at the forward positions. That’s a name you laugh at, and a name you don’t know. Babbitt can shoot the ball but isn’t much of a player otherwise, and McGruder is an undrafted player in his rookie year following two campaigns in the NBA D-League. They’re averaging a combined 10.1 points per game, and neither is shooting 40% from the field.
Three-guard lineup: The Clippers have avoided starting Wesley Johnson or Paul Pierce in the last three games by turning to a three-guard lineup. First, it featured Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers playing alongside normal starter J.J. Redick, and in the team’s last game, Chris Paul returned and replaced Felton in the starting lineup. The three-guard lineup carries obvious defensive deficiencies but has revived an offense that struggled without playmakers at any position other than point guard. Austin Rivers has specifically been a revelation in the last two games, but the team even benefited from the extra playmaking in his first game at small forward, which was a poor individual performance.
Balanced scoring: The Heat have eight (!!) different players averaging 10 points or more this season, which is kind of insane. Unfortunately for them, three of those guys have only played 18 games this year, all but Dragic and Whiteside are under 14 points per game, and neither of those guys are averaging more than 20. Still, even with Winslow out and Johnson reportedly out as well, Miami’s scoring can still come from a lot of directions.
Sixth Men: We might not get to see Tyler Johnson tonight, but he’s had a Jamal Crawford-esque role for the Heat this season. He’s scoring 13.9 points per game and is top-5 in minutes per game off the bench. He also plays with the second unit and then tends to stay in the game in the fourth quarter when the starters come back, playing a long stretch of consecutive minutes. Johnson has played the entire fourth quarter in 12 of the last 17 games, and he’s second in the league in fourth quarter minutes played with 382. First in the NBA? Jamal Crawford, with 383.
Career Nights: Jamal Crawford’s career high in points (52) and assists (T-12) both came against the Heat in two separate games in 2007 and 2005. Jamal-ball might not be a great option for sustainable success, but the Clippers are in the business of winning as many games as possible. Another 50-point night for Jamal would deliver a victory, be pretty fun to watch, and be pretty legendary historically. That said, he was 4-13 against them earlier this year, so maybe we shouldn’t count on it.