The Miami Heat’s next stop on their six-game road trip takes them to Staples Center in Los Angeles where they’ll test themselves against one of the best teams in the Western Conference in the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers (5-2) sit atop the Pacific Division, winners of their last three games, with victories over San Antonio, Portland, and Atlanta.
It’s just the second game in six days for Los Angeles, while this will be the fourth game in the last six days for Miami, which is 2-1 midway through its first road swing of the season.
Miami appeared destined for a second straight loss Monday night in Houston before LeBron James willed the Heat to a comeback victory thanks to 32 second-half points and the go-ahead basket in a 113-110 win.
It was the finest performance of the season for James, who tallied 38 points total on 14-of-26 shooting and 5-of-8 from three to go along with 10 rebounds, six assists, and zero turnovers in just under 40 minutes on the court.
James got plenty of help from Chris Bosh, who went for 24 points and 10 rebounds on 10-of-14 from the field in his best shooting game of the year, with Dwyane Wade adding 19 points, seven assists, and six rebounds in a bounce-back performance after a 3-of-15 effort in Memphis.
Miami shot 50 percent from the field and made 10-of-21 three-pointers to keep its grip on the league lead in scoring, but the defense was very shaky, allowing the Rockets to make 12 three-pointers and get to the foul line 33 times.
The Heat defense will get another severe test in the Clippers, who currently rank third in the NBA in offensive efficiency and are averaging 102.1 points per game.
Los Angeles is led as usual by All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who is off to another brilliant start to the season, averaging 17 points and 10 assists on 49 percent shooting and just two turnovers per game.
Paul leads all NBA point guards who have played at least 150 minutes in Player Efficiency Rating with 27.7.
He’s fourth among all NBA players in that metric, trailing only James, Tim Duncan, and Bosh.
All-Star power forward Blake Griffin is chipping in with 15.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, and center DeAndre Jordan is having a career season with a career-high 11.3 points per game average and a remarkable 72 percent mark from the field.
Although the Clippers sport one of the most star-studded starting lineups in the NBA, it’s a bench player who is actually leading them in scoring.
Free agent signing Jamal Crawford, in his 13th year in the NBA, is off to the best start of his career, averaging 20.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent from the three-point arc.
Crawford isn’t the only Clippers reserve who has been making trouble for opponents this season, with third-year guard Eric Bledsoe averaging a career-high 10.4 points on 47.5 percent shooting.
Bledsoe is having perhaps his greatest impact on the defensive end, applying intense ball pressure to opposing point guards and picking up 3.1 steals per 36 minutes of action.
That means Heat backup point guard Norris Cole will have to protect the ball better than he did against Houston when he turned it over three times in just 14 minutes.
Defense is perhaps the biggest change in the Clippers from last season when they ranked 18th in the league in defensive efficiency.
Through seven games this season, the Clippers are eighth in defense, giving up an average of 97 points per 100 possessions.
By contrast, the Heat is giving up 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks them 24th out of 30 NBA teams.
It’s a sharp reversal from last season when Miami finished fourth in defense at 97.1 points per 100 possessions.
If Miami is to continue its pursuit of a second straight championship, it will likely have to make a significant climb up the defensive rankings.
If the Heat’s defensive effort Wednesday is similar to what it was Monday, late-game heroics from James may not be enough to come out with a win.
After Wednesday’s game, the Heat will travel to Denver to take on the Nuggets in a rematch of the classic matchup in Miami earlier this season that resulted in a 119-116 Heat win.
The road trip will end in Phoenix on Saturday against the Suns.