MIAMI -- Early in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers' 97-79 loss to the Miami Heat on Sunday, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan dropped another pass on an otherwise well-choreographed pick-and-roll play. As the ball rolled out of bounds, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro folded his hands on top of his head, retreated down the sideline, then threw his arms defiantly in the air.
Another missed opportunity.
"We just couldn't put enough offensive pressure on them at all," Del Negro said. "We just didn't shoot a high enough percentage, and then we started turning the ball over."
On Kids Day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, the youthful Clippers appeared right at home. They played a spirited game and scrapped for nearly 48 minutes, but were outclassed by a savvier, more talented opponent.
As the Clippers establish themselves as sexy up-and-comers in a league that loves promise, the loss to the Heat was a pointed reminder that their learning curve will be steep. The Clippers have achieved respectability -- just read the transcript of Erik Spoelstra's gushing pregame news conference for evidence of that.
But translating respectability into long-term success requires winning under adverse conditions. In the NBA, that starts on the road, where the Clippers are 3-17, with a back-to-back against Orlando and New York looming. Young teams traditionally have trouble winning away from their home arenas, and the Clippers have a couple of bad habits that make it even more difficult.
"We try sometimes to make a highlight play, instead of making the safe play because we're on the road," veteran forward Ryan Gomes said. "If we get there on our home court and we get a big play out of it, we get a boost from the crowd. But if you don't do it on the road and don't make those plays, they're fast-breaking, their crowd is getting into it and that puts us in a bad position."
The Clippers provide plenty of catnip for fans on YouTube, but they're also 28th in the NBA in turnover rate, and added another 20 miscues on Sunday. Nobody wants to play the role of Debbie Downer in critiquing the league's most exciting young outfit, but the Clippers could stand to occasionally bypass the high-risk, high-reward alley-oop in traffic in favor of, say, exploiting an obvious mismatch on the weak side.
"Going into [Atlanta and Miami], you have to value each possession more critically than you do at home," Gomes said. "That's what some young teams have problems with is valuing a possession."
Playoff caliber teams also learn to win without key contributors. Clippers leading scorer Eric Gordon missed his seventh consecutive game with a wrist injury. His absence continues to hamper the Clippers' already strained offense.
"It changes the game with Eric Gordon out," Blake Griffin said. "It changes up the flow of our offense."
Prior to Gordon's injury, the Clippers had found success with some creative, hard-penetrating sets. At times, they'd load up Gordon on the same side of the floor with both Griffin and Baron Davis, pressuring defenses with three aggressive attackers.
Although Randy Foye has filled in admirably, he doesn't present the same kind of offensive threat Gordon does.
"[Gordon] adds another dimension because he's such a great shooter from the outside," Spoelstra said. "He's a threat, so you have to play him out there. He stretches their offense a little bit more."
Instead, the Heat packed the paint against the Clippers. Foye finished with 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the field, while Davis scored 14 points and turned the ball over seven times.
The Heat's defensive strategy was most pronounced against Griffin, who recorded yet another double-double with 21 points (7-for-17 from the floor) and 16 rebounds, but was harassed all afternoon. Before the game, Erik Spoelstra told the media he intended to devote the same level of defensive attention to Griffin that the Heat gave Dwight Howard on Thursday night.
The Heat fulfilled that promise. Griffin went 0-for-5 from the field against Chris Bosh, while Joel Anthony also performed his usual regimen of grunt work. In those instances when Griffin was able to find daylight off the bounce, the Heat sent a rotating defender, generally from the baseline. Griffin encountered traps, scrums and mobs, constantly surrounded by multiple white jerseys.
"They're going to load up on him," Del Negro said. "We have to do a better job."
Although Griffin insists teams have employed the same strategy all season long, opponents have undoubtedly changed up their game plans to focus on Griffin. Elite teams understand how to leverage the attention defenses lend to their superstars, something the Clippers are still working on.
Heat guard Eddie House was particularly preoccupied with Griffin. In the fourth quarter, House mugged Griffin on a fast break, sending the rookie flailing out of bounds and earning a flagrant 1 foul. Davis promptly came to Griffin's defense.
"I am going to go to war for my teammates," Davis said. "I am always going to stick up for my teammates. My teammates are like my brothers."
Tough squads answer challenges, and in that respect the Clippers showed some resolve. In addition to Davis' exuberant leadership, Griffin responded on the next possession with a spinning drive to the hoop that froze the Heat's transition defense.
There are other nuances of the game that still elude the Clippers. Athletic as they may be, Jordan and Griffin played unwitting victims to Chris Bosh's ball-fakes. Fast as he is, rookie point guard Eric Bledsoe is still very young. At a crucial juncture in the fourth quarter, the Heat brought the ball up lading by 11. Bledsoe strolled over to the bench, under the impression he was taking a seat.
"I was subbing Baron in for him, but the ball was in the backcourt," Del Negro explained. "He's a rookie and thought he could get subbed in."
Unfortunately, there was no stoppage of play. Bledsoe was redirected onto the court, but at that point, the Clippers' floor balance was out whack. The Heat found Eddie House alone on the perimeter for a 3-pointer that gave the Heat a 14-point lead.
Bledsoe acknowledged the mistake after the game. He also made note of what might be the most daunting challenge for a young team trying to mature and sustain momentum in a very inhospitable league.
"We can't use youth as an excuse," Bledsoe said. "We just have to keep playing hard through all our mistakes. We're too busy worrying about the play we messed up on instead of worrying about the next play."
The young Clippers core will have plenty of next plays -- about 190 per night each time they take the court. They should get Gordon back over the next couple of weeks. Griffin, already a capable playmaker, will hone his instincts as the anchor of the offense. Those highlight reels will continue to spread like wildfire across the Internet.
With all those assets in hand, what's their next play?