LOS ANGELES -- In the seven months since the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat devised a faster offense, built a deeper roster and dispatched many of the distractions that hounded them last season. They appeared more comfortable, more cohesive, and more stable than their pre-lockout selves. But in the past 48 hours, on a turbulent trip through California, they experienced some disturbing Finals flashbacks.
By virtue of their overwhelming athleticism and breakneck pace, the Heat does not play a lot of close games. But when they do, they remain vulnerable, with LeBron James alternately tiptoeing and bulldozing his way through closing minutes.
On Tuesday against the Warriors, the Heat blew a 17-point lead and lost in overtime, after James did not take a shot in the fourth quarter. On Wednesday against the Clippers, James was more aggressive, but no more efficient. He went 1-for-6 in the fourth quarter and overtime, missed four crucial free throws, and fouled Chauncey Billups on a three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation. The Heat lost again, 95-89, in the fourth of a five-game trip that has already included five overtimes.
James said afterward he was satisfied with the Heat's performance, a comment that will surely be parsed right along with his latest crunch-time pratfall. James clarified he was not satisfied with his own performance, but could rationalize a back-and-forth loss to the Clippers more than a blown lead at Golden State. This, more than anything, is a testament to the Clippers and their resurgence. The time has finally come when James can lose a game to the Clippers and feel OK about it. "We're trying to come out of the East," James said. "They're trying to come out of the West."
Wednesday was a coronation of sorts for the Clippers, the first signature victory with their new roster, the kind of game for which they acquired Chris Paul. A sellout crowd filled Staples Center, but then again, the Clippers sell out every home game now. If the fans came for the ally oops, they got those, and much more. Paul threw a lob to Blake Griffin in the first two minutes, but eventually the aerial gymnastics subsided, and one of the most competitive basketball games of this young season ensued. Paul was the best player on the court with 27 points, 11 assists and one turnover.
But even more encouraging for the Clippers, their 24th-ranked defense held the Heat to 39.5 percent shooting, forcing 11 straight misses during one stretch of the fourth quarter and overtime. If the Clippers can plug holes in their perimeter D, maybe they really will contend for the Western Conference. Their next showcase comes Saturday against the Lakers, in the first round of the L.A. Invitational.
"They're a good team, they're a really good team," said Heat forward Chris Bosh. They are going to have some battles, and adversity is going to come. We'll see how they handle it."
Bosh was speaking from experience. At 5-3, the Clippers have been both electrifying and inconsistent, a lot like the Heat early last season. "I am Italian," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "I do have a temper. I am not a patient person. I want to see results. But I also respect the process. It's going to take time and time is not on our side right now." He sounded just like Erik Spoelstra, circa Nov. 2010, when the Heat was hovering around .500 and everyone wanted to know why. Spoelstra talked about patience and process, concepts that are hard to sell players and fans planning championship parades.
The Clippers are nowhere near as loaded as the Heat, but they were assembled just as quickly, a lot of flashy parts smashed together on the fly. The Heat at least had a full offseason and training camp to blend. The Clippers had a couple weeks. They have replaced the Heat as this season's grand experiment, even though the scrutiny is not as intense. If Spoelstra were counseling the Clippers, he said he would remind them that building a championship requires time, no matter how transcendent the talent may be.
The same still goes for the Heat. The process continues.