The Clippers seemed to be in the clear Thursday night when, with three minutes to go in the first quarter, Miami’s Bam Adebayo went to the bench.
One night after Adebayo had scored 28 points in a loss to the Lakers, the big man had blistered the Clippers for 19 points in only the game’s first nine minutes. But his exit for a rest did not yield a reprieve. Out of a timeout, Miami made four of its next five shots to grow its lead to 17 and put the Clippers in a position that was both familiar and surprising.
Early deficits have been as much a feature of this Clippers season as Chuck the Condor or questions about Kawhi Leonard’s knee (he has progressed to performing box jumps, coach Tyronn Lue said). But those were mostly the function of an offense unable to hit shots, not a filleting of one of the NBA’s top defenses, as Adebayo had done.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew better than anyone in the arena not to expect such a run to last. Dan Craig, the architect of a Clippers defense that entered Thursday allowing the league’s third-fewest points per 100 possessions, had designed Miami’s defenses during years as Spoelstra’s right-hand man before joining the Clippers following Miami’s 2020 Finals run.
Not even Adebayo’s start, nor Heat guard Kyle Lowry’s finish, as he scored 22 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter for Miami, could break a defense or winning streak that has now reached six straight after a 112-109 win that wasn’t over until Nicolas Batum deflected Miami’s inbounds pass with four seconds to play.
“I just tried to anticipate a little bit,” Batum said. “Kyle was the guy on fire for them so kind of figure that the play was for him.”
Paul George scored 27 points for the Clippers (7-4) and guard Eric Bledsoe added 21 points to follow one of his season’s best passing performances with one of his best shooting, back-to-back games that have rewarded his team’s faith in him following a brutal offensive start to the season.
Adebayo finished with 30 points for Miami (7-5).
Playing without Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year and seven-time all-defense selection, should have been a death knell for a defense that was only statistically average last season when he sat. Instead the unit entered Thursday allowing the league’s sixth-fewest second-chance points, second-fewest points in transition and lowest field goal percentage, at 41.7%, amid their streak.
Craig’s knowledge helped the Clippers know “exactly what was coming early.” But they couldn’t stop it because of Miami’s speed, Lue said.
The diciest Clippers minutes this season have always come when George rests, and when he checked out midway through the third his team had been beaten repeatedly on the defensive glass and clinged to a three-point lead.
Yet it had grown to seven when George returned six minutes later. In between, Miami had made only three of its 12 shots with one attempt erased by a block by Batum — which Spoelstra vehemently argued was a goaltend — and led to a layup by Reggie Jackson at the other end. And a steal by Luke Kennard on Miami’s Gabe Vincent was the precursor to a dunk by Ivica Zubac.
But even after George drew an offensive foul on Adebayo with two minutes left and the Clippers up seven, this win required a last defensive stand.
Lowry, whose jumper had been blocked by Zubac only minutes earlier in the fourth quarter, drew successive four- and three-point plays at the expense of the center to pull within 108-107. Those plays, and a missed free throw and two layups in the fourth quarter, marred what was otherwise another impactful Zubac night, with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
With 15 seconds left, Lowry’s pass in transition found an open Duncan Robinson for a chance to lead, but he missed and the rebound was ripped out of Adebayo’s hand and into the Clippers’ grips. Then Batum tipped away the final inbounds pass.
The Clippers made 15 of their 17 free throws, including four by Jackson (22 points) in the last 11 seconds.
Bledsoe made nine of his 16 shots, and stepped into three-pointers confidently — this was the version of Bledsoe the Clippers expected after trading for him in August. Though he had earned high marks from Lue for his pace and defense against opponents’ top guards — sparing George from a heavier workload on both ends — he had also shot only 33% overall and 18% from deep, 17 percentage points lower than his career three-point average.
“They just told me to play my game,” Bledsoe said. “Don’t worry about the mistakes. They welcomed me with open arms here.”
Lue had stuck by Bledsoe steadfastly as a starter, even though reserve wing Terance Mann had largely replaced him in many closing minutes. It was Bledsoe, though, who played Thursday’s final four minutes as the Clippers held on, yet again, with the kind of defensive effort that has sustained this streak, again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.