The Clippers are halfway through their Grammy road trip, and they are about to face their toughest test yet.
Tonight, L.A. plays in the American Airlines Arena, a place where only one team has defeated the 31-13 Miami Heat all season. Fortunately for the Clippers, their All-Star Kawhi Leonard is playing as well as he has all year.
Fresh off of being named a 2020 All-Star starter, and earning Western Conference player of the week honors, Leonard heads into Miami averaging 32.3 points per game on 50.3% shooting in the month of January. He has been leading players-only film sessions for the Clippers over the past few weeks as the team looks to get on the same page on offense.
The team's offensive rating has jumped to from 112.8 to 115.2 points per 100 possessions over the past two weeks, despite missing Paul George, though a favorable schedule may be responsible for part of that outcome. Nevertheless, the recent surge by Landry Shamet (his individual offensive rating has jumped six points in the month of January) suggests that the offense is working — and that the ball is moving — as it should.
Game Time: Friday, Jan. 24, 5:00 P.M. PST
Location: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, FL
Line: Clippers -2.5
Against the Heat, the Clippers and Leonard will be facing one of the only wing defenders in the league with a prayer of stopping him. Jimmy Butler was not named as an All-Star starter, and he may be playing with an extra chip on his shoulder Friday because of it. However, he is a strong and tenacious perimeter stopper who has been named to the All-Defense team four times in his career. His defense at the point of attack on Leonard combined with Bam Adebayo on the back line could potentially frustrate Leonard for the first time in 2020.
More than likely, Miami will be a bit more unconventional and throw some zone defense at L.A. Like the Clippers, the Heat are increasingly regular practitioners of the zone. Per Second Spectrum, they employed a zone defense on 10.9% of possessions last season, including a heavy dosage in a come-from-behind win against the Clippers at Staples Center.
With more depth this season and better personnel for man defense, Miami hasn't gone with a zone as often, though their usage still hovers around the 8% mark. When they have, they've protected the defensive glass well, conceding the fourth-fewest offensive rebounds. That's an area where the Clippers like to make their mark; per Cleaning the Glass, L.A. ranks third in offensive rebound rate.
The Heat may have to rely more heavily on a zone defense today, since they are without Justise Winslow. Butler, Goran Dragic, and Kendrick Nunn are also all questionable. Zoning is a good way of conserving energy on defense, particularly when bench bodies are limited.
The Clippers bring their own injury concerns to the matchup. George will be sitting out his eighth straight game with a hamstring injury, and Patrick Beverley is questionable with a strained groin. Down two starters, the team will need extra production out of Ivica Zubac in the paint and on the boards and from Shamet on the perimeter.
L.A. has been able to weather George's absence, but Miami is a more complete opponent than anyone the Clippers have played on this trip. Although the Heat's defense has faltered recently, their offense hasn't. They still space the floor well with Meyers Leonard and Duncan Robinson and provide plenty of space for Butler to get downhill, and Butler has drawn fouls at an astronomical rate this season. The Clippers have to be careful about getting their perimeter defenders into foul trouble.
Two of the best teams in the league by record face off on national television tonight. Even if a few faces are missing, this is one of the marquee regular-season games on the Clippers' schedule. They have shown the ability to rise to the occasion throughout the season, and they will need that level of intensity in order to earn a win in Miami.