Thursday night’s matchup between the Miami Heat and the visiting Los Angeles Clippers was meant to be, for many, a preview of the NBA Finals. It was the first real test for a talented Clippers roster expected to make a deep playoff run. Whether it was a result of playing on the second night of a back-to-back or the extra gear the Miami Heat find in big-game situations, the Clippers were unable to sustain their energy and execution for a full 48 minutes as they fell short 102-97.
The extent to which Miami tried to get the ball out of Chris Paul’s hands summed up the Clippers’ offense. After putting up nine assists in the first half, Paul had zero in the third quarter that saw a four-point Clipper lead turn into a three-point deficit. On all pick and roll situations involving Paul as the primary ball handler, Miami consistently and aggressively double-teamed Paul. Their defense was stifling and the Clippers had no answers to the traps, aggressive closeouts, and championship-level rotations.
Coming into last night’s game, Paul was No. 6 in scoring (24.8 points per game) and No. 1 in the league in assists per game with 12.6. The Heat understood the importance of forcing him to beat them with only one facet of the game.
“We didn’t want [Paul] to be able to do both [score and pass],” guard Dwyane Wade said via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Paul finished the game with 11 points (3-11 FG), 12 assists, and 5 turnovers. The Clippers’ 19 turnovers led to 24 points for the Heat.
The Clippers did a remarkable job in dictating the pace in the first half of Thursday’s game, outscoring Miami 17-2 in fast break points. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, who at one point was criticized for not being able to make the necessary in-game adjustments, did just that as they trapped Paul wherever he was on the floor, disrupting the rhythm the Clippers were playing with in the first half. The Heat outscored the Clippers 50-41 in the second half and limited them to just two fast break points.
“You could see in the third quarter they slowed the game down and then we slowed it down with them,” said Rivers after the game. “I thought that hurt us. I thought we had a six-minute stretch to start the third quarter where we could have stretched the game. Instead, we started walking it up and slowing everything down. They’re too good with a set defense and we allowed them to set their defense. And that’s when all the turnovers were created.”
More frustrating than the hiccups on offense was the chemistry, or lack thereof, on defense. The defensive rotation wasn’t crisp, communication on that end of the floor seemed to be at a minimum, and there was just an overall absence of intensity in protecting the paint. Miami finished with 46 points in the paint and shot 53.5 percent from the field. The sample size is still too small to jump to any legitimate conclusion, but the Clippers are currently No. 28 in the league in giving up buckets to the opposition in the paint, giving up 46 points per game in the paint. They gave up 37.7 points per game in the paint last season.
“I know our defense is going to come,” Rivers said on Tuesday. “You can see it in spurts. We’re going to have a game where its 86-85 and we’re going to have to defend. We are getting timely stops. We’re going to get it.”
Five of the six teams the Clippers have faced scored 100 points or more. The Orlando Magic, the only team that didn’t, defeated them 98-90 Wednesday night. It might be time to actually start rotating properly, helping from the weak-side, trapping in the appropriate situations, and taking charges. There is only so much longer this team can talk about playing defense.
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