10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clippers -6.5, Over/Under: 223
On the eve of the Trade Deadline, contenders look to perhaps cement their status, as the Miami Heat head west to battle the Los Angeles Clippers from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. After a few years spent in the NBA’s relative No Man’s Land, let’s take a moment to welcome back the Heat (34-15, T-3rd in Eastern Conference), who after a rather significant Offseason have propelled themselves back into contention in the East. Indeed, Pat Riley got to work over the Summer, acquiring the services of the polarizing Jimmy Butler (20.7 PTS, 45.3% FG, 25.7% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 6.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 24.3 PER), in a massive four-team trade featuring the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Portland Trail Blazers. On his fourth team in as many years, Butler had developed a reputation as hard-working, self-made All-Star, who at the same time may not be the easiest to coach or play with, as cited by his numerous blowups with management and teammates (I.E. the Minnesota Timberwolves). Furthermore, the debate about the 30-Year Old is often whether or not he’s truly a superstar, a foundational piece that a team is capable of building a championship contender around. Starved for a superstar since the departure of LeBron James back in 2014, Riley has put all his chips in Butler’s basket, and the Hall of Famer will be happy to know that this marriage between star and franchise has gone far smoother than in his previous stops, at least for now. After missing the Playoffs in each of the past two seasons, Miami currently stands tied for Third in the Eastern Conference, thanks in large part to Butler’s heroics; the 5-time All-Star and 4-time All-Defense Teamer has led by example, averaging 20.7 Points per Game on 45.6% shooting, getting to the Free-Throw Line a career-high 9.4 times a night, while racking up career-bests in Rebounds (6.8) and Assists (6.2). With the club winning seven of their last ten outings, Butler has averaged 20.7 Points on 47.5% shooting, with 5.8 Rebounds and 5.3 Assists, dropping a season-high Thirty-Eight Points in the Heat’s 137-106 annihilation of his former club, the 76ers, which he achieved through Three Quarters. Any notion that he wasn’t motivated to face his old mates is just plain ridiculous, as his game did the talking, on an efficient 14-of-20 shooting (70.0%), Seven Rebounds, Two Assists, and Three Steals. Miami scored a franchise-best EIGHTY-ONE Points in the Second Half, as Erick Spoelstra’s charges defeated Philadelphia for the third time this season. As a team, the hosts shot a blistering 56.5% from the floor, including 16-of-32 from downtown (50.0%), and knocking down 25-of-30 Free-Throws (83.3%), assisted on Twenty-Seven of Forty-Eight Field Goals, and committed a scant Three Turnovers. Alongside Butler, Spoelstra received a spirited performance from his unheralded group of youngsters, including Bam Adebayo (15.8 PTS, 58.0% FG, 10.4 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.6 PER), Duncan Robinson (12.2 PTS, 46.0% FG, 43.9% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 12.6 PER), and Kendrick Nunn (15.8 PTS, 46.2% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 14.1 PER), who combined for Forty-Six Points, Thirteen Rebounds, Seventeen Assists, and Two Steals, while veteran Point Guard, Goran Dragic (16.0 PTS, 45.3% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 5.0 AST, 16.8 PER), added Twenty-Four Points on 7-of-12 shooting (58.3%), including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%), off the Bench. The victory strengthened Miami’s NBA-best home record to 22-3, where they’ve hammered opponents by an average of 10.6 Points per Game. However, if this team is truly the championship contender that they’ve fashioned themselves as they’re going to have to improve their play away from AmericanAirlines Arena, going just 12-12 on the road. Tonight’s trip to Los Angeles starts a crucial five-game road trip that will last until the All-Star Break, featuring tough matchups with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Utah Jazz. It will be interesting to see if the Heat pull the proverbial trigger to bolster their ranks before Thursday’s Deadline, for they could certainly stand to provide Butler with some veteran help. Miami has been without versatile Wing, Justise Winslow (11.3 PTS, 38.8% FG, 22.2% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 4.0 AST, 8.8 PER), for twenty-seven of their last twenty-eight games due to a bone bruise in his lower back, while sharpshooting Rookie, Tyler Herro (13.1 PTS, 41.4% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 11.7 PER), left the affair with the Sixers with a bruised foot. Both players are expected to miss tonight’s contest.
Meanwhile, the Clippers (35-15, 2nd in Eastern Conference) are looking to add to their collective talent as well, having now risen to Second in the West. Of course, this is a team that carried MAJOR expectations coming into this season, thanks in large part to the additions of All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard (27.4 PTS, 46.5% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.9 STL, 26.9 PER) and Paul George (22.7 PTS, 42.7% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.6 PER), the former of fresh off his second NBA Finals MVP, this time with the Toronto Raptors. Given what Los Angeles already had to work with, and they absolutely overachieved last season thanks to some masterful coaching on the part of Doc Rivers, adding two bonafide stars in their respective primes is certainly enough vault themselves into the stratosphere of the league’s elite. And all things considered, we probably still haven’t seen the best of what this group has to offer. Keep in mind that due to cautious load management on Leonard’s behalf, and George missing twenty-one games thus far following Offseason Shoulder Surgery and other various maladies, this dynamic duo has only been on the court together for a mere 501:32, or in other words, only 20.8% of the term thus far. As you can imagine, the Clippers are a solid +11.6 Points when they’re both on the hardwood, and the fact that they’re off to their best start in franchise history through fifty games should have the faithful in Los Angeles absolutely frothing at the mouth for what’s to come. This was evident when we last saw them, rallying back from a late deficit to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, 108-105. Trailing by as many as fifteen points in the First Half, the hosts gradually climbed back into the contest, with both Leonard and George playing crucial roles in the comeback. George, who sustained a sharp elbow to the nose midway through the Third Quarter, causing him to step away for a brief period to stop the bleeding, would drop Eight of his Nineteen Points in the final stanza, including a late Three-Pointer to give his side a 4-point lead inside of a minute to play. That dagger came off the heels of a Leonard dunk to take the lead, followed by a clutch block on the other end of the court courtesy of the former Defensive Player of the Year. the Spurs would cut the lead back to one with a trey of their own, but Sixth Man extraordinaire, Lou Williams (19.5 PTS, 41.1% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 6.0 AST, 17.4 PER), would draw the foul and knock down a pair of Free-Throws to extend the advantage back to three, with the visitor’s final half-court heave falling short. In the end, Leonard saw his record of nine straight games with Thirty Points or more come to end, scoring Twenty-Two on 8-of-17 shooting (47.1%), along with Six Rebounds, Seven Assists, a Steal, and Two Blocks, while George added a season-high Twelve Rebounds and Eight Assists to go with his total. Williams scored a dozen off the Bench, with kinetic big man, Montrezl Harrell (19.1 PTS, 57.0% FG, 7.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.1 BLK, 22.5 PER), chipping in with Fourteen Points of his own. Though they were outscored 29-39 in the First Quarter, the Clippers turned things around in the third frame, where they blasted San Antonio 31-19, trailing by just one heading into the Fourth Quarter. Tonight’s meeting with the Heat will mark the second and final meeting between the two sides in the Regular Season, coming just ten days after narrowly escaped South beach with a hard-fought 122-117 victory. Similar to their tilt with the Spurs, Rivers’ charges overcame a 22-30 deficit in the First Quarter (down by as many as 15) only to take control of the game in the Third, where they outscored the home side 38-20, finishing the period on a 15-0 run. The Heat would rally back to get within three inside of a minute to play, but couldn’t seal the deal. Leonard was as advertised during this period, scoring Seventeen of his Thirty-Three Points on 5-of-5 shooting (100.0%), including 3-of-3 from downtown (100.0%), along with Four Rebounds, Three Assists, and a Steal, with the visitors as a whole netting a healthy 13-of-23 Attempts from the field (56.5%) in comparison to just 6-of-18 for Miami (33.3%). With George missing the affair with a hamstring strain, Leonard notched his first Triple-Double with his new club (33 PTS, 10 REB, 10 AST), while the Bench was a huge factor, totaling Fifty-Eight Points. The aforementioned Butler traded blows with Leonard early, quite literally in some cases, taking a shot to the eye in the First Half, totaling Twenty Points, Eight Rebounds, and Seven assists before being forced to exit the contest prematurely with a turned right ankle, the second time he did so. Both players have performed at an MVP level thus far, and come into this rematch in great form. Of course, they also locked horns in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, though doing so with different teams. A modern classic, Leonard’s Raptors narrowly bested Butler’s 76ers in seven games, with the former rattling in a walk-off corner Three-Pointer to end the series in thrilling fashion.