Somehow, the Miami Heat are flying under the radar. They’ve had ups and downs, but it hasn’t changed their standing as the team to beat in the East, and the favorite to repeat.
But they haven’t been the best regular season team thus far. That distinction belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and when Chris Paul has been healthy, the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami’s opponent on Thursday.
Chris Paul had missed seven days as of Sunday. It’s a shame for the Clippers, because he’s their best player, and it’s a shame for us fans, because he’s an MVP candidate and maybe the most clinical half-court operator in the league. But his absence has allowed Eric Bledsoe to emerge. Bledsoe’s average stint on the court before Paul got hurt lasted less than 20 minutes a game. Now, he’s getting Paul’s starter’s minutes. To be clear, he’s not replacing Paul by any means. Paul is an unequivocal stud; Bledsoe is younger than me. (It’s not too late to sign me, by the way.) Bledsoe is especially deficient in his shooting efficiency and playmaking compared to Paul. But he rebounds very well for his position, and he might be a better defender. He forces turnovers at much the same rate as Paul—Bledsoe has the highest steal percentage in the league—and blocks shots at a higher rate than Blake Griffin. He’s improved in every way from his rookie season, which is the last time he saw major minutes. It’s unclear if Paul will be back for Friday’s game against Miami, but if not, Bledsoe has an opportunity to improve on his first game against the Heat. He scored fairly easily against their defense, getting half his shots at the rim, but ran the offense poorly, turning it over four times. It’s also unclear if Paul will be back next season. That uncertainty has probably kept Bledsoe on the Clippers, who want to keep one of the two. He’s no Paul, but Bledsoe has made the case for himself as a solid starter so far.
Chris Bosh gets a lot of blame for the few problems the Heat have. But he’s asked to do a lot for this team, nearly as much as LeBron James. Bosh has to handle a good chunk of the scoring load while serving as the primary rim protector for the first time in his career, all while banging for rebounds against bigger guys. Of course people are going to notice his deficiencies as a center. He’s a power forward. He’s benefitted from the change in position on offense, posting a career high TS%, and while he’s no Joel Anthony, he’s become a reasonably stout shot blocker. The problem is that he’s getting beaten up on the defensive glass. But that’s what happens when you go small, as the Heat have committed to do this season.
He rebounded well in Miami’s loss to the Clipper in November. But he struggled to score against DeAndre Jordan, shooting 3-for-13 from the field. He has to be better for Miami to win.
What to Watch For
The Clippers are among the sweetest-shooting teams in the league, despite employing Jamal Crawford. That’s because the rest of their core players are so efficient. DeAndre Jordan has clearly attended the Tyson Chandler All Dunks Finishing School, and Matt Barnes is really picking his spots off the bench. The Clippers’ standing as one of the top teams in the league eFG% is all the more remarkable considering they don’t shoot well from three. They did, however, make it rain in their win against Miami. You have to think some regression is in store, despite how poorly Miami defends three-pointers. If so, the Clippers will have to make it up in the paint.
On the other hand, the Clippers are pretty bad at defending three-pointers themselves, while Miami is one of the best teams in the league from distance. LeBron James, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, and Ray “The Best Shooter of All Time” Allen are all snipers. Miami almost matched the Clippers’ 3PT% of 47.6% in their November game, shooting 42.9%. If this game is another shooting contest, the odds, and the personnel, would seem to favor Miami.
Why Else Should I Watch?
The LeBron vs. Baby LeBron matchup?
How to Watch
ESPN, Friday, 8 p.m. E.T.
League Pass Bonus Game
Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets, Tuesday, 8 p.m. E.T. Two of the most fun backcourts in the league.