THE EXPECTATIONS OF BEING THE HUNTED
Success begets expectation.
For three years, since the acquisition of Chris Paul thrust the Clippers into the upper echelon of the NBA, the organization has been saddled with expectations. They have increased each year. A playoff series win led to a 56-win regular season led to the arrival of Doc Rivers, who knows a thing or two about dealing with a team being the hunted.
The Clippers’ level of expectation has reached a crescendo. It’s something that comes with the quick turnaround of a major acquisition, particularly for a team that hasn’t won a title together.
Rivers dealt with it in Boston the year Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were traded for. The Miami Heat did as well, three years later, in 2010. After LeBron James arrived in South Beach, the Heat was thrust into the championship picture before the beginning of camp, before going through anything together.
Mike Miller, who played three seasons in Miami and won two titles with James and Co., said the Clippers are dealing with something similar right now with a new coach and a star-filled roster. He talked about he handled playing on a team with a target on their back.
“You’ve just got to be prepared mentally and physically, I think,” recalled Miller, who signed as a free agent with the Grizzlies in the summer. “It’s a little more difficult at the beginning because if it’s a new situation for you, you don’t really know how to handle it. As time went on, and last year was over, my third year through it, it made me mentally stronger. To me, it makes you a mentally stronger person and player. I wouldn’t change any of it.”
Miller said every game he played with the Heat had the feel of the postseason. It’s continued this season and was evident on Wednesday when the Clippers lost to Miami at Staples Center, 116-112 when the energy in the building was even more palpable than usual.
The Heat are used to it by now. But in their first month together the team went 9-8, scrutiny was at its apex and pressure was mounting. It was something James addressed recently in an interview with Steve Smith, telling the longtime NBA veteran and NBA TV host: “We weren't playing good basketball. We were out of sync. And me and Dwyane Wade were looking at each other like, 'Did we make the right choice, man?'"
Miller echoed James’ sentiment. Did he think the Heat felt the external pressure?
“Of course you do,” Miller said. “I would say year two or three when we went through things, the one thing I learned through the whole time was when we lost a couple of games in a row the world was coming to an end. But year two and three was a lot different than it was in year one, especially year three. In year one, we felt external pressure, but we understood that for us how you react to those situations is what makes you a good team. And after we won a championship it made going through those things a little bit easier.
“[After] the first month, you could pretty much deal with anything. We had tons of expectations, obviously. You have the best player in the world coming, there’s scrutiny behind that and we didn’t start off so well. One thing we had to lean on was that locker room. It grows that group tighter and closer together and makes you that much better of a basketball team.”
According to Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, all of that can be a good thing.
“Ultimately, if you handle it the right way, it’s good for your team,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the reality of what our situation is and you have to embrace it. Every single night you know there’s going to be great competition and as a competitor that’s what you want. You don’t want games that you can sleepwalk through. We can’t half-step through any of our games.”
Former Butler University head coach Brad Stevens learned that at the collegiate level. After leading an unheralded Butler team to the Final Four in 2010, the way teams approached the Bulldogs in year two changed drastically, when they went from unknown to every game being a season-defining moment for opponents.
“The next year we had a few roster changes, [Gordon] Hayward deciding to go pro was a major one and it was tough,” said Stevens, who is in first season with the Celtics. “Our focus and attention at that time was: you have to beat an opponent and you have to beat human nature. And human nature is a lot tougher sometimes.”
Human nature, of course, sets in over an 82-game regular season schedule. In three years, the Heat, the Spurs, and the Clippers have lost plenty of games they likely should have won. It happens in the NBA. But the process of being an elite team requires a fair share of lumps.
“Being on this team one thing that I’ve learned,” Darren Collison said. “[Doc] doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s always staying level headed. If we win or lose, he’s always talking about the ‘process.’ Even when are having a lot of success, he’s talking about, ‘don’t get bored with the process.’”
During Miller’s time with the Heat, Spoelstra talked often about the process of winning. The longer they were together and the more so-called battles they went through, the easier it became to see the finish line. The Clippers may be in their first season with Rivers but Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan been through two previous seasons together and Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford went through it with them in 2012-13.
“When you go through that stuff as a team and that same team stays together for a long period of time, it’s like you’ve seen the picture before,” Miller said. “You know how the ending can be as long as you stay together and do the right thing.”
And that’s ultimately what the Clippers hope for.