The five starters who walked on the court Friday night in Miami were a welcome sight for the Clippers.
The game was not.
It will take some time for Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin to get their legs under them and find a rhythm as a unit. Right now, they’re as rusty as an old tire iron.
But the good news is that they’re all back, and so is reserve guard Jamal Crawford. If anything could take the awful sting out of the Clippers’ 111-89 defeat to the defending league champion Heat, it was that.
“It’s good just to have everybody back,” Crawford said. “We understand there will be bumps in the road, but we’ll figure out a rotation, figure out how things are going to play out. We all understand there’s a bigger goal in mind, so we’ll be OK.”
Paul had missed 12 of 14 games because of a bruised right kneecap. Griffin was out the past two games with a strained left hamstring. Billups had played in only three games this season, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and then going down because of tendinitis in his left foot. Crawford had a sore shoulder that sidelined him for one game.
This was a rare occurrence: Paul, Billups, Griffin, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan — the projected starting lineup — playing together.
But little went right against the Heat, who made 15 three-point baskets, shot 53 percent for the game and got 30 points and six assists from LeBron James, all by the third quarter.
The Clippers stayed close for one quarter, but they fell behind by 12 at halftime, and a 14-0 run by Miami in the third made the deficit 78-54. At one point, the Heat led by 32.
“We’ve just got to stay together,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “It’s a test right now. I didn’t think they felt us physically. I thought we gave them way too much space, way too much respect. That’s what happens.”
There’s little doubt the Clippers need to establish a feel for each other. They had just one practice as a starting group, and Del Negro had to readjust his substitutions and his minutes for his starters.
Offensively, they weren’t quite right either. Paul drilled a three-pointer on his first shot of the night, then missed his next four and finished with three points in 19 minutes, 36 seconds. Billups was limited to 16:26 and was two of five from the field.
But Griffin and Crawford, who scored 13 apiece, were sharp, although they weren’t enough against a Heat team that has won 9 of its past 11 games and owns the best record in the Eastern Conference at 33-14.
Afterward, Del Negro was reluctant to use his team’s lack of playing time as a reason for the lopsided loss.
“I wouldn’t go there with that,” he told reporters. “The game is scheduled, you’ve got to come out ready to play whoever’s out there. Everyone knows we haven’t played with that group in a long time, and (we had) one practice. But they were quicker than us, they were more physical, they scrapped harder than we did. They put us back on our heels.”
That’s not a good place to be. One area of concern continues to be three-point defense. The Heat shot 56 percent from beyond the arc, with James, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers a combined 13 of 18.
“We didn’t guard the three ball at all tonight, and they spread us out,” Del Negro said. “They shot it well. They made some tough shots. But we’re monitoring minutes with some guys. I was just happy we came out of the game unscathed injury-wise.”