They warned us. All of them. Kawhi Leonard. Paul George. Russell Westbrook. I’m pretty sure a couple of ball boys weighed in. Incorporating James Harden into the Clippers’ lineup wasn’t going to be easy. “It’s going to be a process,” said Westbrook. Hours before Harden made his debut against the Knicks, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue foreshadowed some growing pains.
“We understand that it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” Lue said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Well … Lue was right.
The Clippers lost the first game of the Harden Era on Monday, collapsing in the second half of a 111–97 defeat. Harden scored 17 points in a load-managed 31 minutes. He made six of nine shots and two of his four threes. He handed out six assists against two turnovers. He had nice chemistry with Ivica Zubac, slipping the Clips’ center passes off the pick-and-roll that led to open shots.
“I [felt] kind of weird out there,” Harden said. “But just not really having a preseason game or an opportunity to participate in the full training camp or none of that. It was just [being] out there and just basically winging it. Try to go off my basketball instincts and what I’ve been doing for the last few years or whatnot. I just went out there and playing and thinking the game and trying to make the game easier for everybody else.”
Said Lue, “I thought James [Harden] was really good.”
The Clippers, though, were really bad, particularly in the second half, especially in the fourth quarter, when they were outscored 35–21 and allowed the Knicks to shoot 65% from the field. After watching his team cough up too many offensive rebounds (18 total) and commit way too many turnovers (22 overall, which led to 35 Knicks points) Lue pulled his starters with 4½ minutes to play.
“There wasn’t a need to take a chance on someone getting injured,” Lue said.
The Clippers aren’t panicking, of course. No reason to. Harden has not seen live action since last May and working in an alpha on a team with three alphas was always going to be a challenge. After the game, Lue pointed to the positives. He liked the first-half defense, when L.A. held the Knicks to 37.5% shooting and 21.4% from three. He liked how the Clippers attacked in transition in the second half. He liked how Harden led the second unit, creating offense for L.A.’s subs. Some of the mistakes—like Harden kicking a pass to the corner … where both P.J. Tucker and Norman Powell were standing—will be addressed with time.
“When it comes down to the talent aspect, this is one of the [most] talented teams I’ve played for,” George said. “We’ll figure it out. First game. A lot of moving pieces, but it was fun. Playing on the court with those guys was fun and a lot of optimism going forward.”
It’s easy to see what needs to be fixed. The ball didn’t move much Monday. Nearly everything L.A. did offensively was off one pass. Sometimes none. The Knicks have been decent defensively this season, but the Clippers made it easy on them. In training camp, Lue drilled into his players the need to cut whenever Leonard or George came off a pick-and-roll. With Harden, Lue said, they will need to stay home more and create space.
“That’s going to be a little different for us,” said Lue.
A challenge for Lue—and there are several—will be keeping his stars engaged. Leonard scored four points in the first half Monday. He attempted six shots. In the third quarter, Lue ran the offense through Leonard, who scored 11 points (on five-of-nine shooting) in 10 minutes. Leonard said he didn’t feel lost offensively, noting that with the surplus of scoring, “I just gotta be ready when my opportunity comes.”
One down, 76 to go and even in defeat the Clippers believe they have something special. Harden noted the “unlimited possibilities” with L.A.’s offense, which will coalesce with time. On Monday, Lue used the word sacrifice often. “Minutes, shots, touches,” Lue said. “If they do that we can be a really good team.” Rebounding will need to be addressed (the Clippers were clobbered on the boards 48–31), but Lue believes the team’s rebounding strength at the wing positions will eventually overcome a lack of size.
L.A. has the talent, Lue said. Now it’s time to put in the work.
“Just because you acquire a guy like James Harden doesn’t mean you are automatically going to win,” Lue said. “You got to put the work in and you got to be ready to sacrifice. Our guys understand that … we got a long time to figure things out.”