As the Clippers’ bus rolled toward the airport late Tuesday through the chilly Texas night, Miami awaited.
But they couldn’t get Dallas out of their heads.
Their awful shooting earlier that night cost them both a victory against the Mavericks and a chance to bolster their playoff resume, and the understanding of an opportunity lost lingered — especially for forward Tobias Harris. The team’s leading scorer made only one of his nine field goal attempts and Harris, known to analyze every last part of his performances, wasn’t over it.
His teammates recognized it, and the back-and-forth began. A subdued bus grew louder.
“We had to go to Tobias like, ‘Forget the game,’” guard Avery Bradley said. “’You didn’t play well but tomorrow you’re going to play even better.’”
Said guard Patrick Beverley: “He struggled yesterday, and it’s not the first time he struggled and wouldn’t be the last time and we just told him that. ‘Get the … off your headphones, shake that … off, and you’ll go have 50.’”
“We kind of flushed it out,” Harris said of his conversation with teammates. “We kind of just talked about it like, dang, we couldn’t make no shots. Me going around like, ‘You couldn’t make no shots, you couldn’t make no shots.’ We brought some light to the situation and was able to come out today and have that good energy.”
Despite having a day to prepare, Miami didn’t have the legs to run in the second half with a Clippers team whose flight landed in south Florida at 4 a.m. Los Angeles (26-22) turned a close first half into a lead that grew to as much as 18 points while holding Miami to 45 points after halftime.
“It looked like it was heading to a really competitive game going into the fourth quarter, but they took control,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They stepped up their defense and flattened us out.”
Dwyane Wade had 13 points in his final game against the Clippers, but all were scored in the first half. Coach Doc Rivers found a solution by sticking reserve Sindarius Thornwell on Wade for stretches. Hassan Whiteside’s team-high 22 points weren’t enough for Miami (22-24) to recover.
“What we’re trying to do is mix the right amount of toughness with the right amount of scoring and see what we come up with,” Rivers said. “That happened today.”
It took all of 80 seconds Wednesday for Harris to equal his field-goal total from the previous night, and his nine field goals in the first half set a personal record for most in any half in his career. When Miami adjusted after halftime to limit his chances, Harris went into “playmaker mode,” and finished with six assists. He has 19 assists in his last three games, the most in any three-game stretch of his career.
“Great players don’t have two bad ones in a row most of the time,” Rivers said. “Sometimes they do but you know they’re going to come out of it.
“Today he was scoring and doing the other stuff. To me, I’m so proud of him because last year he didn’t know how to do that. This year he’s doing that and it makes our team better.”
The Clippers turned the ball over only seven times, the first time this season they’ve had single-digit turnovers in consecutive games, and the shooting returned as they made 52% for the game. Five players scored in double figures, with 14 of Montrezl Harrell’s 16 points coming in the fourth quarter.
When the Clippers cut an eight-point deficit to one in the second quarter off a jump shot by Avery, Harris was more demonstrative than typical, yelling at his teammates “Let’s go!” in the backcourt.
Coaches told Harris he’d played well in Dallas because he’d put teammates in position to score even when he wasn’t making shots.
On the bus, though, his teammates’ reviews were more blunt.
Harris took their reviews as constructive. It was understood that the issues had gone beyond him — no one else could score, either, and the defense eventually broke under the pressure of having to do so much.
“One thing about this team that goes unnoticed is we’re able to mediate ourselves” without coaches’ input, Beverley said. “We can talk to each other without getting angry, without getting mad. We understand who our star is and what guys can put the ball in the basket. We see our teammate down? We pick them up. That goes for everybody.”
Facing a fresher team, Rivers told the Clippers before the game to just get through the first quarter. But, truth be told, the Clippers had already weathered the worst long before they stepped onto the court with a new-look lineup of Harris, Bradley, Beverley, center Marcin Gortat and point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“Once we got on the plane, everybody was worried about this game,” Bradley said. “Focused.”