The first nine minutes of the Clippers’ third game with James Harden were, in the eyes of coach Tyronn Lue, “a work of art.”
What, then, does that make the last 39 minutes of Friday’s 144-126 loss against Dallas, in which the Clippers’ early 12-point lead — and the window it opened into how a roster with four future Hall of Fame players can mesh — devolved into trailing by as many as 32 points on their way to a fourth consecutive loss?
“What’s the worst that you can be?” Lue said.
The coach quickly added he would co-sign on any description a writer chose. What the Clippers showed against the Mavericks said enough by itself.
At 3-5 and winless since acquiring Harden, and backup forward P.J. Tucker, in a blockbuster deal from Philadelphia, the Clippers find themselves needing to answer thorny questions before they can reach super-team potential.
Asked individually about their levels of concern, Paul George said he was “super optimistic,” Kawhi Leonard said he was “still confident,” Harden was focused on the “big picture” of it all and Lue added his confidence the team will “be all right.” It was a sentiment that echoed the prediction this week by Lawrence Frank, the team’s top basketball executive, that “we’ll hit our stride two, three months down the road.”
Yet the belief the Clippers expressed Friday in their ability to find their rhythm long term does not allay concern over their immediate struggles in a Western Conference race that could have more playoff-caliber teams than playoff spots.
They allowed 85 points combined to Dallas in Friday’s second and third quarters, and 42 of Luka Doncic’s 44 points were scored in his first 23 minutes. They are still figuring out how to play effectively with small lineups since backup center Mason Plumlee sprained a knee days earlier, with no big-man acquisitions considered imminent.
Lue changed his rotation to bring Russell Westbrook and George to the bench earlier than usual in the first quarter to give Harden and Leonard more time together before pulling that duo and re-inserting George and Westbrook in their own two-man game with reserves. It did not work at all — one such lineup using them with Norman Powell, Terance Mann and Tucker was outscored by nine points in just two minutes — although Lue wants to see more of it in the future.
Still, the most overarching issue remains since they acquired Harden, a former MVP and league-leader in assists and scoring, and added him to a roster where Westbrook, George and Leonard thrive with the ball in their hands. For the past decade, those four have known exactly their role on every team they have been on — always as a top-two scoring option.
Read more: Clippers remain winless in the James Harden era after blowout loss to Dallas
They are used to coaches saying, “Here, ‘win the game for us,’ ” Leonard said, “and you have your guys around you that are locked into their role and that’s what it’s going to be about.”
Now, the Clippers’ core four are suddenly back in role-definition mode, something that can change possession by possession, Harden said.
George set out Friday inside American Airlines Center to define his own role as a defensive stopper and rebounder, leaning on his co-stars to score, believing it was the best use of his energy after the Clippers struggled to rebound in losses at New York and Brooklyn that marked Harden’s first in uniform. Yet as George went scoreless in the first half, the first time that has happened in the 197 regular-season games since he joined the franchise in 2019, he felt out of character in a “non-aggressive attack mode, which I won’t do again.”
“I let the team down with that approach, but again, it won’t happen again,” George said. “The mind set will be in attack mode at all times.”
Likewise, when Harden took a pair of catch-and-shoot three-pointers in Friday’s first quarter, it stemmed from trying to better fit in. While watching film of Monday’s loss in New York and Wednesday’s defeat in Brooklyn, he’d turned down five or six such catch-and-shoot opportunities out of “not being used to it,” conditioned to be the creator of open shots, not the beneficiary.
Harden scored 14 points in the first quarter and needed only three field-goal attempts to do it, while getting to the free-throw line six times. It was the most comfortable he had looked since joining the team, Lue said.
But he never scored the rest of the game, and took only three more shots, before he and the rest of the starters watched the entire fourth quarter from the bench as Lue looked ahead to a 12:30 p.m. tipoff against Memphis on Sunday.
“First quarter felt really good on both ends of the ball and then from there it went downhill,” Harden said. “So trying to find a balance of not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but just trying to still be aggressive and be myself. So it’s a process, but it’s definitely a little frustrating. We do like to win games.”
The offensive sacrifices are already evident.
Before the trade, Westbrook averaged 72 touches per game, George 59 and Leonard 54, according to NBA data.
In three games together since the trade, with Harden averaging 56 touches, George has averaged seven fewer, Leonard 14 fewer and Westbrook 32 fewer per game. While Westbrook and Leonard are actually averaging more points per touch, that hasn’t been the case for George, who went from a team-best efficiency of .486 per touch before the Harden trade to .269 since.
The locker room afterward was not the most morose it has been this season.
“At some point it’s going to work and nobody’s going to talk about the rotations and guys on the floor and personnel,” George said. “And at some point we’re going to figure it out.”
Still, they also hoped they would figure out more than they have in the nearly two weeks since Harden joined. The starters have been outscored by 11 in 51 minutes together, with an offensive rating of 93.1 — points scored per 100 possessions — with a defensive rating of 102.6 points. Despite preaching patience, Lue thinks the Clippers should be further along with their defensive pressure tactics, while George said a lack of spacing had held back the offense.
Dallas guard Kyrie Irving, who went through a similar feeling-out process while learning to play alongside Harden and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, and Doncic in Dallas late last season, called the Clippers’ steep learning curve expected.
“They’re incredible, I think we can all echo that sentiment, but when you’re playing a team game, there’s only one basketball out there and to find some offensive continuity takes time, and then to find the defensive identity roles, it could be frustrating,” Irving said. “Out there, I didn’t feel the frustration from them, but I can tell that there was just a ‘Where do I go?’ type of emotion. I’m sure we won’t see that when we see them in L.A. as much, but right now they’re just going through those ups and downs in the public forum where they are getting criticized for not winning games even though they’re as great as anyone in the league statistically and individually.”
It isn’t just Harden, Westbrook, Leonard and George who have to adjust and sacrifice, Leonard said, but also reserves Mann, Powell and Bones Hyland, who also “are used to getting and feeling a certain way with the ball as well and just seeing certain minutes,” Leonard said. “So we just got to keep figuring it out and have fun with it.”
“Nothing really surprised me,” Leonard said of how the team has looked since the trade. “Just I would say more of the downside. I’m seeing more of the downside of things early than what I thought about. Obviously like I said, we have four guys on the floor that are used to having a ball, used to finding a rhythm just by feeling and touching it all game. You could see it, you kind of seen it with Luka and Kyrie last year. They was trying to figure it out. But like I said, just playing more, you’ll start to figure out, OK, this guy needs this spot here or he’s, he got it going, let me buy in into another part of the game where I can make us win.”
Lue doesn’t believe lineups without a center fit Harden’s ability as a pick-and-roll savant, and Harden even asked starting center Ivica Zubac to stay later after the team’s morning shoot-around Friday to work on pick-and-rolls. But Lue then inserted Mann alongside Harden and the starters to begin the second half over Zubac, saying he wanted to switch and blitz more easily on defense.
“It didn’t work,” Lue said. “But you got to try something when you’re down 30 at halftime.”
The first three games of Harden’s tenure could be called a work in progress. Or, alternately, a work of patience. Or growing pains. The question facing the Clippers is how the final 74 of their regular season will be described.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.