Kiki's keys to the game: Heat vs. Clippers

BY foxsports • January 11, 2012

You want stars? Staples Center is going to be full of them Wednesday night, and we're not even talking about Kobe Bryant and Jack Nicholson.

No, this time it's LA's other team, the Clippers, with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler taking on the Miami Heat and their Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. We're talking 32 All-Star Game appearances for those seven players alone. We're talking about some of the most exciting players and incredible athletes on the planet. We're talking lobs, dunks, big shots.

It's going to be spectacular.

The difference between the teams, for now, is the Heat are a year ahead of the Clippers when it comes to getting their stars aligned. They got their great pieces two summers ago and have had 18 months to put the puzzle together. The Clippers added Paul, Billups and Butler last month. That's three new starters. It's not easy.

You saw the Heat struggle with it a year ago. With all the talent they had, they weren't very good the first month of the season. They weren't comfortable playing together. They didn't know their roles. You see some of that now with the Clippers. But I think the transition will be easier for them for one big reason: They have the best point guard in the game.

Paul makes everything easier. The guy just knows how to play. He's still learning his new teammates, but he knows how to get everyone involved. He can score when he needs to. But mainly he's the kind of player who makes everyone else better. If you're Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, you have to love playing with him because he makes the game easier for you.

And don't forget Billups. The Clippers didn't get one great point guard; they got two. Chauncey is an All-Star, a champion, a Finals MVP. He's a natural-born leader who calms everybody down. With his shooting ability, moving over to two-guard really shouldn't be a tough transition for him. Maybe he doesn't have the quickness to guard really fast shooting guards anymore, but he gives LA a second leader on the court and a guy who makes big shots. That's huge.

I think if Miami had a guy like that last year, their transition would have gone a lot faster. But in the beginning, everyone was being too careful. No one wanted to step on anyone's toes. It was Wade's team, so LeBron and Bosh didn't play as aggressively as they could. Wade wanted to accommodate them, so he might have deferred a little too much, too.

This year, a couple things have happened. The guys on the Heat know one another now. They know their strengths and weaknesses. They know how to play together. And they just want to win. They don't care who scores or who takes the shots.

I think losing in the Finals really stung, but it may have helped the Heat get better. They look like they're on a mission now. They're a different team, and that starts with LeBron.

Last year they were perimeter-oriented and LeBron and Wade were out there shooting 3s. Now, LeBron's in the paint. You can tell he has worked on his post game. He's practically unguardable in there. He's too strong for smaller players, and he's way too quick for big men, so you have to double-team him. And that opens things up for everyone else.

That makes a huge difference. You need a post presence in the NBA. You saw that with the Dallas Mavericks last year, when Dirk Nowitzki would go in the post and make plays. LeBron has been incredible, scoring nearly 30 a game and shooting nearly 60 percent. But that's taking nothing away from Wade, who's still a leader on both ends of the court and the second-best closer in the game, behind Bryant.

And Bosh is playing his game, too. Last year he seemed unsure of himself and how to be a complementary player. But he's doing what the team needs: rebounding, playing defense, scoring when needed. And he showed when LeBron and Wade were out against the Hawks that he can still be that No. 1 guy.

Overall, the Heat are deeper now. Not having Udonis Haslem last season was big. He's tough, he rebounds, he does the little things you need to do to win. Shane Battier does some of the same things, and he always plays within himself. And I like Norris Cole. He's better than a lot of people thought.

You look at Miami now, it's scary. They're so physically gifted, so powerful and quick. And their defensive philosophy hasn't changed. It's that old Pat Riley, aggressive, tough-minded defense. They turn you over a lot, and they run off it. But now, instead of settling for 3-pointers, they're running for opportunity baskets and taking it to the hole and getting fouled.

That's what I mean by being on a mission. They're not going to beat themselves. That's why the Clippers are going to have to play great Wednesday night. And I think they will at home.

I think you're going to see them try to get the ball out of LeBron's hands when he gets the ball in the post. They won't come with the double team when he catches it. But once he dribbles, you'll see a big man come over and try to force him to give it up.

The Heat will do the same on the other end when Paul runs the pick-and-roll. They have the athletes to switch defenders, especially if LeBron is guarding the screener. But I don't think they'll do that at first. I expect them to defend it aggressively and trap Paul and get the ball out of his hands. But he's such a good passer he'll be able to find teammates for open shots.

There's also the Bosh-Griffin matchup. Two very different power forwards who may be competing for a spot on the Olympic team down the road. They'll both need to play great defense because both are capable of going off on offense.

It will be interesting to see how Wade holds up. He missed a week with foot problems but came back Tuesday and scored 34 at Golden State. Will the foot bother him in the second half of a back-to-back?

We'll see. Like I said, it's going to be spectacular. And, like everyone else at Staples Center, I can't wait to watch all the stars collide.


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