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On Wednesday night, one month and 12 games into their up-and-down experiment of incorporating four future Hall of Famers on one roster, the Clippers proved that the elusive can be done in a 131-117 win against Sacramento. Their starting wing trio of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden can, in fact, all find their offensive rhythm on the same night. Their offense can operate cleanly. And instead of raising questions, they can produce a commanding performance befitting their lofty ambitions.
“That’s what it should look like, guys,” coach Tyronn Lue said before he even sat down for his postgame meeting with reporters. “That’s what it should look like right there. Now we got to duplicate it, again, and again, and again.”
It was their first win on the road in four chances against an opponent with a winning percentage of .500 or better, and was rarely in doubt. The Clippers (8-9) set season bests for a first half in points (72), three-pointers (11) and fewest turnovers (one) while leading by as many as 22 points.
Leonard scored 34 points, Harden had 26 and Paul George added 19. Every starter scored in double figures, with Ivica Zubac scoring 14 and Terance Mann 18.
“The whole course of the game we found an identity … and that led us to generate really good shots,” Harden said. “And we didn’t turn the basketball over, we limited them to one shot, didn’t allow them to get into transition, things that they’re really, really good at. So, the more we can kind of do that consistently, better chances we have at winning.”
Yes, the win came against an opponent playing its second game in as many nights. But so was Denver on Monday, when the short-handed Nuggets stunned the full-strength Clippers anyway. The sting lingered, so much so that Wednesday morning, Lue still was stewing over what he termed “elementary” defensive mistakes during “that bulls— game,” and wondered how the team could coax Harden, a former league scoring leader, to be more aggressive, after he averaged just 1.5 field goal attempts in fourth quarters as a Clipper.
“We have a selfless team,” Lue said before tipoff. “They’re not saying, ‘Oh, he’s taking too many shots. I’m not getting those shots.’ But they got to be aggressive in their own rights of doing what you do well. And we have four special guys and they all bring something different. They’re all better and unique in certain situations than the other guy is, and so we got to be able to use those talents.”
While Lue implored Harden that “we need him to be more aggressive,” he also described the “fine line about keeping other guys in the rhythm, but also letting him be able to play pick and rolls and make plays as well.”
Hours later, they found that balance. Harden scored 17 points in the first quarter, a total that would have tied for his third-highest-scoring game this season. He finished shooting eight for 14 from the field and added six assists and five steals.
“James just wanted to prove to y’all that he is James Harden and so he can do that on a nightly basis,” Lue said.
Harden said he had not heard angst among fans about his lack of aggression in crunch time.
“It’s not even about the fourth quarter, it’s about the entire game,” he said. “It’s just me knowing what the hell I’m supposed to be doing and doing it.”
In the second quarter it was George, as he scored 11 points, and Leonard, who added 12. More important to Lue was that they made quick decisions with the ball, a marked change from the way each can often survey the floor, allowing opposing defenses to reset.
When the Kings (10-7) punished Clippers reserves and cut their 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter to 13 with six minutes remaining, it called to mind the way the Clippers frittered away 11-point leads three times Monday. Lue, who has criticized his players’ professionalism at times not putting away opponents when given the chance, reinserted his starters and the lead never reached single digits.
The Clippers tied their season low with seven turnovers, made 14 three-pointers, their most since Nov. 1, and made a season-high 50% of their threes.
It was the type of performance that showed the depth of their talent and illustrated why the front office made the trade for Harden so early, hoping the team could work out the kinks early in the season. Lue said he didn’t have another team to reference as a guide for integrating so many All-Star talents who share the same position, noting that most superstar-laden teams of the last two decades usually included a star big man who bore the brunt of the offensive sacrifice.
“You look at all the teams that have been put together with a lot of star power, they all went through some sort of adversity regardless of the talent,” George said. “It’s going to take some time because you got to find how to be yourself when your usage rate isn’t going to be as high as it used to be and you know the possessions you were going to have. And so that’s going to take time to figure out who’s the new you in that system. And that went for all of us. We all were trying to find that.”
The night’s only blemish was a right knee injury suffered by reserve Norman Powell in the fourth quarter after he was run into by Kings forward Harrison Barnes. Powell’s availability for Thursday’s game in San Francisco will be reevaluated; he left the locker room with a pronounced limp while saying he felt “good.”
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