Originally Published: February 5, 2014

1. Heat Nudge Clippers Toward Road Course

By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Miami Heat didn't have to do this. That's what made their 116-112 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers both impressive and cruel.

For the Clippers it was a battle, for the Heat it was maneuvers. The Clippers didn't have their starting backcourt, they absorbed a dose of a healthy Heat squad primed to planet-destroying capability in a display that should strike fear everywhere north of Broward County ... and yet the Clippers still managed to fight back to keep the outcome in doubt until the waning moments.

And all the Clippers have to show for it is a step backward in the ever competitive Western Conference.

"We're in the West," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, feeling no need to feed the pregame hype. "Every game you play is important."

LeBron James
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The margin for error is so thin that in just three days and two games, the Clippers have gone from eyeing the top spot in the conference to the prospect of packing their bags to hit the road if the playoffs started today. They'd be the No. 4 seed by virtue of leading the Pacific Division, but the fifth-seeded Houston Rockets would enjoy home-court advantage with a record that's a half-game better than the Clippers.

You could see the urgency in Blake Griffin's sweat-soaked jersey and in the minutes column of the box score, which showed 40-plus minutes for four starters, with less than a minute and a half of rest for Jamal Crawford. Crawford was in the shooting guard spot vacated by J.J. Redick, a late scratch due to a hip injury. All-Star point guard Chris Paul remains sidelined by a sprained shoulder, although he was shooting on the court before the game and could return as soon as Friday's game against the Toronto Raptors.

Not having Paul, one of the steadiest ball handlers in the NBA, to face the Heat was like roaming the Internet without antivirus software. The Heat preyed on the Clippers and converted 20 turnovers into 25 points. And the absence of the deadeye Redick reminded the Clippers that for all their talk about defensive effort, they're a team that's predicated on offensive efficiency. It's why Rivers set a goal of 120 points for his team to win this game. That could be dangerous tempo against a team with Miami's prowess, but the Clippers showed they could match the Heat, highlight dunk for highlight dunk.

The problem was their carelessness with the ball and difficulty manufacturing points against the Heat's set defense.

The Clippers' 43 percent shooting Wednesday night left them with a 20-17 record when their field goal percentage is below 50 percent. They're also 13-9 when Redick doesn't start, including 11-7 in the games Paul started without him. They're 21-9 in all games Redick starts.

The Heat, meanwhile, couldn't have been more efficient or spectacular in the first quarter. They shot 70 percent and assisted on 15 of their 16 field goals. The Clippers kept providing turnovers, the fuel for the Heat's engine, and Miami went up by as many 19 points. Dwyane Wade was running and jumping well, a welcome sight for the Heat.

Shane Battier isn't the type to point to his own stats, yet he referenced his 4-for-8 3-point shooting as an indication of how well the Heat offense played at the outset.

"When I get open 3-point shots, that means the ball's really moving," Battier said.

This was the opposite of the stilted-offense meltdown against the Thunder last week, a game the Heat have distanced themselves from with three consecutive games of more than 100 points.

"We've been playing some good basketball as of late," James said. "When we've got our full unit in there, we can do some special things."

Griffin refused to let the Clippers fold, putting in a monster game of 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. He even made a 3-pointer that brought the Clippers to within three points in the final minute. Crawford pumped in 31 points, including five 3-pointers.

Griffin even spent some time guarding LeBron James. The idea was to force LeBron to shoot jumpers. Except LeBron doesn't force too many jumpers. One time, he tried to drive past Griffin only to be cut off, so he passed ... then promptly got the ball back, sucked in the defense and threw a lob to Birdman Andersen. There were times LeBron controlled the game without having to venture below the free throw line, probing, finding teammates. He had 31 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and a spectacular chase-down block.

Afterward, James relayed the team's desire to get this six-game road trip off to a good start. It was evident in their effort, a game in which they shook off the doldrums that afflicted them in January. One of the reasons they appeared to lose their way is that they haven't locked in on a specific target, such as the No. 1 seed the Indiana Pacers have so adamantly sought. Instead, the Heat speak in vague terms.

"We talk about the process all the time of getting and building to our identity," Spoelstra said.

They have that luxury thanks to their location in the Eastern Conference. They're virtually assured of faring no worse than the second seed in the playoffs thanks to a 9½-game cushion over the Toronto Raptors. They can afford to treat these games as exhibitions. Wednesday, they exhibited just how good they can be, even if they put their weakness -- rebounding -- on full display. The Clippers outrebounded them 52-31 and turned 21 offensive rebounds into 29 second-chance points. Those and the free throws (31 in 42 tries) kept the Clippers in the game.

The Heat can get away with failing in one of the game's fundamentals. The Clippers need almost everything to go right on most nights. It's yet another reason they might be envious of Miami.

"We've been together four years now, we don't rely on one thing," Wade said. "We don't rely on our athleticism, we don't rely on 3-point shooting. We kind of use it all in the midst of a game."

They put it all on display Wednesday night, right down to another clutch Ray Allen 3-pointer. And the thing is they didn't even have to.

Dimes past: Jan. 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30

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