The Clippers improved to 5-1 on their Grammy road trip with a throwback, defense-first 103-95 win over the Heat in Miami.
The Clippers came out very slow, with nobody on the team hitting on offense and everyone a step slow on defense. The Heat went up 11-3 at the 8:30 mark, and Ty took a timeout. The defense took a step up but the offense did not, and at the 5:30 point, the score was just 16-7. The Clippers finally got going down the stretch of the first quarter, and after some buckets by Norm and Kawhi trailed just 22-19 after the end of the first quarter.
The Clippers’ bench unit, with Mason Plumlee instead of Theis and Harden in alongside the reserve crew, played with more energy, and three consecutive triples got them their first lead at 28-27 at the 8:32 mark. At this point, Zu and Paul George returned, and the offense took a dip again, mostly because PG was way off on all of his shots. The rest of the starters came back a couple minutes later, and the Clippers got their largest lead at 41-36 with 2:50 to go. Unfortunately, their offense once more went in the tank, and the Heat were able to tie it 43-43 at halftime.
The Heat continued to send hard double teams at Kawhi Leonard, and this time the Clippers were much better about moving the ball and decisively attacking gaps. The Clippers got their lead up to eight by the mid-point of the quarter, largely behind Kawhi and Harden, and were able to hold the lead most of the period. The last few minutes of the third, however, were rough, with the Clippers going scoreless and the Heat cutting the lead back down to two, 69-67, heading into the final frame.
A Russ blown dunk and Jaquez three gave the Heat the lead, an inauspicious start to the 4th. Fortunately, a Norm free throw grift immediately gave the Clippers the lead back – and they wouldn’t surrender it the rest of the game. With the Clippers up 72-71 and 10:05 to go, Paul George returned, and on that same possession Harden hit a four-point play. The Clippers continued to push, led by Harden, and got their lead up to 91-78 at the 5:18 mark after yet another Harden four-point play (though he missed the free throw). From there, the game got extremely ugly, with the Clippers playing “try not to lose” ball and the Heat desperately trying to get back in. The last minute of the game took about 15 minutes due to free throws, but the result was never really in doubt, and the Clippers escaped with a 103-95 win.
Zu Returns: Ivica Zubac made his long-awaited return from the calf injury that kept him sidelined for weeks and looked… rusty. He played just 18 minutes and had four points in three rebounds, not making his usual impact on offense or defense. Still, it was great to see him back out there. It will be interesting if he doesn’t play tomorrow, or if this low minute’s load means he can go again against the Hawks.
Kawhi and Harden, Again: The Clippers’ two best players in this one, as they have been for most of the year, were Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. Kawhi had an efficient 25 points on 16 shots and added 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and fantastic defense. Harden scored 21 points on 13 shots, was critical in the 4th quarter run that won the game, and had 8 rebounds and 11 assists as well. Both players had bad turnovers, but were the two overall best players on the court, and remain the Clippers’ backbone on defense and offense. The one downside was another huge minutes load for Harden at 42, who is still looking tired despite his great performance. He needs rest, and stat.
Mason over Theis: The trickle-down effect of Zu returning was the Clippers having to make a decision on who would play backup center. Tonight, it was Mason Plumlee, and he actually logged 26 minutes. There also wasn’t any Daniel Theis at all, as the Clippers did not attempt to play the two veteran big men together at all. Plumlee was fine in this one, posting five points and nine rebounds in his time on the court, but quite honestly I think Theis has been better this season. I get Plumlee is a better rebounder and theoretical rim protector, and is a bigger target attacking the rim on the pick and roll. It just hasn’t translated to much impact so far. But I’m ok with the Clippers giving him a look, and we will see how the rotation shapes out from here.
Limited Russ: A key for Ty Lue this season has been balancing Russell Westbrook’s minutes. Against the Pistons he was playing incredibly well, so he got a lot of minutes and touches. Tonight, he was 2-9 from the field and had three turnovers to two assists. As a result, Ty played him just 15 minutes – absolutely the right call. I think Russ has brought a lot of value both on the court and in the locker room this season, but his role as an energy guard is perfect, and those guys simply don’t need 20+ minutes on most nights. Ty having the ability and awareness to simply not play Russ much on his off-nights is great to see, as one of the worries with bringing Russ back was that he’d have too large of a role, even with Harden.