LOS ANGELES — The Clippers entered Saturday night’s contest against the Miami Heat with seemingly every advantage. They had two days of rest and were playing at home at almost full strength, while the Heat only had nine healthy players entering the game and were playing the second night of a back-to-back after being in Phoenix the night before. On top of that, LA has simply been better this season.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the games aren’t played on paper.
LA suffered its most disappointing loss of the season, falling to Miami 121-98 for its second consecutive defeat, ending a nine-game home winning streak in the process. Dwyane Wade led the way for the Heat with 25 points, including five triples, much to the delight of a surprisingly pro-Miami contingent at Staples Center.
The Heat broke the game open in the fourth quarter after entering the period up 91-90 as the Clippers offense completely shut down. Lou Williams got into the paint for a driving layup that was goaltended by Justise Winslow with 10:47 left to play, and the team didn’t score again for over seven minutes when Williams hit a long three with 3:24 left to play. At that point, LA was down 112-95.
During that 19-0 run for Miami, the Clippers couldn’t stop the Heat from getting whatever they wanted at the basket, including offensive rebounds. Derrick Jones, Jr. and Bam Adebayo completed a series of lobs, and Winslow and Wade were able to get into the paint at will. On the other end, LA was completely out of sorts on offense. The team missed a series of open threes and often looked like the players weren’t running the same play. On one instance, Williams and Montrezl Harrell ran a pick-and-roll, and Williams tried to hit Danilo Gallinari in the corner, but Gallinari had already relocated to the wing.
It was surprising the Miami had more energy at the end of the game, considering they only had nine rotation players available to start the game and lost Tyler Johnson midway through the first quarter. Generally, the Clippers overwhelm teams with their own depth and spirit, but that was missing Saturday.
“Usually, we bring intensity, energy, and defense, and we didn’t bring these three things tonight,” Gallinari said postgame. “These three things are our DNA. If we don’t bring it every night, we can lose every game.”
Head coach Doc Rivers had a similar sentiment.
“I think we got away from our formula. If we don’t come and play with great intensity and play hard, we’re not like some of the other teams that can still win,” Rivers said. “Our energy and how we play is part of what we have to do to win. And we just didn’t do that tonight.”
LA was also flummoxed by a unique strategy the Heat employed, one that was interestingly borne from their lack of depth — they played zone against the Clippers. Winslow identified LA’s primary strengths as getting into the paint and drawing fouls, and with the Heat’s lack of bodies, it made perfect sense to force the Clippers into being a jump-shooting team.
LA had difficulty attacking the zone with passing, and the ball got stuck on the perimeter. When the Clippers managed to get the ball into the paint, they struggled against the Heat’s length. They couldn’t make Miami pay from distance either, shooting 7-of-29 from three.
“[The zone] presented a challenge because it’s something that we haven’t seen, and we couldn’t make shots. That’s the challenge, really,” Harris said. “We had a lot of good looks, including myself, we weren’t able to get them to fall.”
Harris only shot 2-of-8 from distance, but he was in attack mode from the jump. He had his best stretch at the end of the second quarter when the Clippers played a small ball lineup with Gallinari at the five alongside Harris, Williams, Avery Bradley, and Patrick Beverley. After falling behind by as much as 13, Harris started to light it up. Williams, acting as the primary ball-handler, was able to find him for two big dunks, one of which resulted in an and-one, and two threes. Harris had 11 dunks on the season entering this game, so two in one half was a little out of the ordinary.
The Clippers took a short-lived advantage before halftime, but ultimately went into the break down three. It was a decent result for how poorly they had played in the first half, and you kept expecting the team to make a run and flip the switch on the tired Heat players. But after spending much of the game playing catch up, LA had nothing left down the stretch. Rather than mounting a come back, the Clippers lost their cool. Harris picked up one technical foul, and Rivers was ejected.
Beyond the ejection, it was a tough game from a coaching perspective. Rivers took responsibility postgame for the team not being ready to go. The Clippers were also clearly ill-equipped to handle the zone defense and couldn’t even capitalize on what should have been a weak spot: rebounding. Miami outrebounded LA 58-48 and outscored the Clippers 24-15 on second-chance points.
Rivers tried a number of lineups, but couldn’t find a configuration that worked. Boban Marjanovic started after a strong stint against Memphis Wednesday, perhaps with the intent to physically overwhelm Miami like he did against Deandre Ayton last week, but it didn’t really work. Ideally, Boban can draw some early fouls and get his team in the bonus, but the Clippers couldn’t get to the basket; when they did, they were off their rhythm and played a little too quickly, missing a lot of shots from close range.
Once the Heat brought in Kelly Olynyk to mitigate Boban, Harrell and the small lineups had no hope of stopping Miami on the interior. The Heat scored 52 points in the paint to 38 for LA, well below the Clippers’ average of 52 per game. The damage could have been even worse if Miami’s open shooters were able to connect from three; instead, they shot 33 percent from three.
This was the first game of the season where the Clippers really got outworked, and their despondence afterwards was noticeable. Both Gallinari and Harris called it a “bad loss”, which is a term they don’t use lightly. There are no easy wins in the NBA, not even against teams with built-in disadvantages. The Heat came to play, and the Clippers didn’t. That’s why they play the games.