LOS ANGELES -- Whenever Doc Rivers talks about championship expectations, championship defense and championship attitude, he points to the Miami Heat.
They are the unquestioned gold standard he holds up when trying to show the Los Angeles Clippers what they should aspire toward.
And why not? After back-to-back championships and three straight trips to the NBA Finals, there aren’t many other teams a coach would want his team to emulate besides the Heat. Rivers, as the coach of the Boston Celtics, faced the Heat in the playoffs three consecutive seasons and got a firsthand look at the team he wants his Clippers to one day become.
On Wednesday, he once again got a firsthand look at the Heat as they came to Staples Center and defeated the Clippers, 116-112.
It was the second time Miami has beaten L.A. this season. The Clippers quietly pointed at playing the second night of a road back-to-back after the first loss, and pointed at playing without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick -- in addition to playing their 12th game in their 10th different city in 19 days -- after Wednesday’s loss.
The truth: The Clippers weren’t better than the Heat then and they’re not better than the Heat now.
That’s no surprise. The Clippers are still in the process of trying to become the kind of team that is talked about in the same sentence as the Heat and, more importantly, will be in a position to play the Heat at the end of the season come June.
“Teams like the Heat and San Antonio have the ultimate trust in each other, in their systems, in their rotations,” Rivers said. “They very rarely make a mistake. As a matter of fact, you can tell when they do make a mistake because they want to look at each other like they want to kill each other. We’re still in the middle of that. It’s good to see teams do it, and they’ve done it. They’ve been through everything.”
The Clippers are always talking about being in the process of becoming an elite team. They know they’re not there yet, and their record certainly shows that. After Wednesday’s loss to Miami, the Clippers are now 2-7 against the top five teams in the league, winless against those teams on the road, and are 0-4 against the Heat and the Indiana Pacers.
Despite their struggles against the league’s elite, the Clippers are learning something from each team, especially the Heat, who never waver from their system. It’s the kind of consistency and the trust the Clippers are aiming for.
“They never deviate from what they do,” Jared Dudley said. “LeBron [James] is the focal point and such an unselfish superstar. Defensively they’re going to be in their spots. Their poise and their timing and execution down the stretch are things you can learn from. They’re a team that’s been there and done that and has chemistry, and that’s something we’re trying to get.”
The process, however, never really ends. Talk to Heat players and coaches, and they’ll tell you each season brings with it a new set of challenges, teammates and opponents. Winning a title one year gives the experience to do it again, but there is certainly no blueprint that guarantees success.
“We try to build habits,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We talk about the process all the time. It’s about building and getting to our identity. We’ve been inconsistent with that so far up to this [point] of the year. It’s not about our record. It’s about how we’re playing. We know we can get to another level.”
It’s a level the Clippers are still trying to achieve. Before Sasha Vujacic was signed to a 10-day contract on Monday, no player on the Clippers had ever won a title and none of their core players -- Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford -- has even made it past the second round.
Their inexperience isn’t lost on them. It’s the biggest reasons why the hiring of Doc Rivers was so essential to this team’s growth. Rivers has won a title, was on the brink of winning a second and has been through the battles of the postseason year after year. It’s the kind of cache and résumé that Vinny Del Negro simply didn’t have. He was learning right along with his players.
While Rivers doesn’t want to place too much emphasis on regular-season games, he does take time during film sessions to highlight what teams are doing against them that he wants his players to observe. When they go up against the Heat and the Spurs, he wants them to understand that the level of trust and ease with which their opponents are playing is exactly what he wants to see from them one day.
“You have to step back and look at what kind of team they are,” Griffin said. “They’ve been through some of the most adversity a team has had to go through as far as the hate they’ve received. They’ve been through the fire and the thing about them is that they stayed calm throughout the whole game and that’s a sign of maturity as team.”
The Heat are certainly no strangers to playing Rivers and seeing his teams in the postseason, and they wouldn’t be surprised if they crossed paths with the Clippers again down the road.
“Talent-wise, this [Clippers team] is probably going to be his most talented team,” Dwyane Wade said. “As the season goes on, from the first time we played them until now, even without Chris Paul, you can see that Doc Rivers is a heck of a coach when it comes to offensive packages. You see a guy like Blake Griffin blossom under Doc Rivers, with what he’s able to put around him.
“His team is still becoming a good defensive team, with DeAndre Jordan down there clogging the paint. So this is, I think, his most talented team, and as time goes they’ll get even better as they get more comfortable with his system.”
Rivers can only hope they get comfortable with it fast enough to earn a return date with Heat this summer.
“They’re good and we’re good,” Rivers said. “And we’d like to see them again. I think everyone in this room would be happy with that.”