Maybe this is a game the Clippers will look back at and identify as a turning point in their season, remembering it as a show of perseverance when they had every excuse to give in to exasperation after their poor early shooting against Miami and the absence of their injured frontcourt stars Wednesday seemed to consign them to a loss.
The Clippers' 104-90 victory over the Heat at Staples Center was their 10th win in a row but their first in that streak earned at the expense of an elite team. It was all the more impressive because they had to do it without Blake Griffin, who missed his ninth straight game because of a quadriceps muscle injury, and DeAndre Jordan, who has pneumonia and missed a game for the first time after playing 360 in a row.
If they were lucky to face the Heat while Miami is deep into a six-game trip, had to play without injured guard Goran Dragic and has slid into a 1-4 slump, every team has injuries and slumps and the Clippers simply played the hand they were dealt — and played it well.
Paul Pierce, taking a leadership role without Griffin and Jordan, wouldn't let them lose. "He and the whole team were frustrated at halftime," Coach Doc Rivers said. "He said, 'Just keep playing.'"
They outscored Miami in the third quarter, 34-17. Overall, the Clippers won because they prevailed in the paint (42-32), on second-chance points (14-3) and because they got help from some unlikely sources.
Center Cole Aldrich, pressed into starting duty at center in place of Jordan, had season highs with 19 points and seven rebounds in a season-high 24 minutes while guarding Chris Bosh (11 points) most of the night. Pierce, who was three for 16 from the field in his previous two games, was six for 10 and had 15 points and a season-best nine rebounds.
Closest to Rivers' heart, Pablo Prigioni had a career-high eight steals, matching the league high this season. "He's a crafty, veteran player," said Rivers, who holds the Clippers single-game record of nine. "Eight steals in 14 minutes is impressive."
If the first nine victories in their winning streak were games the Clippers were supposed to win, those games still served an important purpose in allowing them to experiment with their rotation and refine their defensive play.
Not only did they make some much-needed progress on the defensive end, they solidified their place in the top four in the West behind Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City and put some distance between themselves and fifth-seeded Dallas. They've moved 41/2 games ahead of the Mavericks in their effort to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and they have every intention of looking up, not down and behind them.
"Our goal is to be third or second," reserve guard Austin Rivers said before the game. "We've got to keep getting better and better and eventually, at the end of the year, end first. We've got a lot of work to do, and we've just got to take it game by game."
Any progress they make, he said, will result from their defensive play.
Miami committed 24 turnovers Wednesday, many of them under intense pressure.
The Clippers' improvement on that end, Austin Rivers said, has been the best gain from this streak.
"We're communicating really well," he said. "We have each other's back on defense and we're starting to really defend every game and make it tough for people to score, which is leading to everything else."
Aldrich agreed, but also praised Chris Paul's veteran leadership while Griffin has been out.
"I think defensively we've been really good. Offensively, we've had some guys really step up," said Aldrich, whose missing tooth and jagged row of stitches above his eyebrow gave him a strong resemblance to a hockey player.
"Austin had a few games where he played unbelievable and Chris, this whole month, has just been playing great. With Blake out we need those guys to step up and they have, and it's just a way to continue to have trust in our guys."
In each other, they trust. With that trust they've built a 10-game winning streak, piece by solid piece.