LOS ANGELES –- The score is Rockets 100, Clippers 100, James Harden brings the ball up the court with 29 seconds left in the game, starting the possession off by making an entry pass to Kawhi Leonard on the wing, who iso dribbles for five seconds, before passing it back to Harden at the top of the key with 10 seconds left.
As everyone stood to their feet in Crypto.com Arena to watch Harden do what Harden knows best, his signature step-back 3-pointer, and the result was swishing a 27-foot shot while being fouled in the act of shooting. After electrifying the crowd, Harden proceeds to make the free throw to convert the four-point play with six seconds left, now giving the Clippers a two-possession 104-100 lead over the Rockets.
This game had added implications for 34-year-old Harden, not only because of all the backlash that came with being 0-5 on his new team, but namely with the narrative that he forces his way out of every team he goes to, this may have lit a fire under him to find success with his current squad against his former organization, the Houston Rockets. From tip-off, Harden played super aggressive, drawing fouls and getting his shots to fall early, as he went on to score an efficient 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field, while also recording 9 rebounds and 7 assists. “I’m getting real close. I’m getting close to myself every game,” Harden said following the win. “I feel like I’m improving.”
Not only taking into account motivational factors but also the difference maker tonight could have even been attributed to the team’s new starting lineup rotation, which came off the heels of the breaking news story that Russell Westbrook was volunteering himself to come off the bench. With Tyronn Lue’s tweaks to the rotation tonight, having Westbrook play with the second unit, it permitted Harden the ability to get back to his playstyle of taking the reins of the offense, which notably led him to win both a scoring title and MVP while playing for the Rockets.
Clearly, in the short sample size of seeing former teammates Harden and Westbrook playing alongside each other on this current Clippers team, both players did not thrive playing off the ball. In particular, Harden’s playmaking and shot-creating capability was greatly limited, and to point out heading into tonight, when both he and Westbrook shared the court, they had a +/- of -36 points through the first five games as teammates on the Clippers.
This could also be because both ball-dominant guards have noticeably different styles of play, with Westbrook playing uptempo and Harden operating at a much more steady pace. Coach Lue referenced this when noting his coaching strategies, as it pertains to lineups going forward, “Just trying to split those guys up as much as possible and let those guys have their own unit.”
Lue harped on Harden getting back to his old ways ever since he joined the team, recently stating his opinion on Harden’s adaptation to this new offensive system, “He’s doing too much to try to fit in,” Lue stated. “He has to be James Harden.” Every team Harden has played on, he has never had to be the guy that has to try and ‘fit in’ and this was verbalized by the player himself upon his exit from Philadelphia, “I’m just not a system player; I am a system. You know what I mean?”
The “basketball freedom” that Harden desires is to have control on offense, and this is part of what led to him seeking asylum in LA, as the 15th-year veteran claimed that as a member of the 76ers, he was somewhat “on a leash.” Even though his former teammate Joel Embiid recently disagreed with this statement when asked about Harden’s remarks.
So far since joining the Clippers, Harden has had to learn the Clippers’ new system, in addition to getting comfortable playing with 3 other perennial all-stars in one lineup. Harden is averaging 15 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game through the first six games on his new team. Markedly, this is a major drop-off from Harden’s usual production, as he has taken on a more passive facilitating role since joining the Clippers, and this is certainly understandable as a backseat approach is evident when four ball-dominant players are playing together.
As Paul George stated earlier this week, “We’re all honoring this adjustment,” George said, via Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes. “There’s one ball, and there’s four good motherf***ers. And we understand that and embrace it. We have to sacrifice. We understand it. Simple as that. No one is going against that. Nobody is frustrated about it. We know what we have. We want to make each other better, and I don’t think one person is complaining one bit about it.”
The Clippers seem to recognize that late in games, the ball will go to whoever has the hot hand, and this is a luxury that not many teams have. With all things considered, any of the Clippers’ big four can take over a game, as each has proven to be top scoring threat throughout their careers: Harden 24.6 ppg, Westbrook 22.3 ppg, George 20.7 ppg, Leonard 19.6 ppg.
Despite high expectations, the newly assembled Clippers team has gotten off to a slow start, and they clearly needed to switch things up following six straight losses. Desperate times call for desperate measures, that is to say, who would have thought Westbrook would be the one to put ego and pride aside to take on a bench role?
Some might remember, Westbrook loathed the idea of coming off the bench just a season ago, when he was with the Lakers. For, he even went as far as to make a questionable excuse, stating in last season’s opener that he “absolutely” believed a hamstring strain injury, that he sustained during the last game of the preseason, may potentially have been caused by him coming off the bench. Which Westbrook justified his excuse by saying that it messes up his routine and preparation if he isn’t starting, for he has been doing the same thing for his whole career.
Maybe Lakers’ head coach Darvin Ham got through to Westbrook, with his good choice of words, “It’s not a demotion, it’s a realignment.”
Ultimately, the Clippers unequivocally needed an adjustment, and by Westbrook demonstrating unselfishness by yielding his starting role, the decision seemingly benefited both the team and his old teammate Harden, who had his best game so far in a Clippers’ uniform. All in all, his sacrifice seemingly paid off, as in tonight’s win, the Clippers snapped their six-game losing streak, while simultaneously putting an end to the Rockets’ six-game win streak. And in the future when others look back on the Clippers’ turnaround, in this Big Four era, it very well could be accredited to Westbrook’s unselfish decision to “buy in.”
As a skeptic, one might ponder that Westbrook surrendered his starting position because he saw the writing on the wall, meaning that he foresaw being asked to take on a sixth-man role eventually, as he did with the Lakers.
Nevertheless, vocalizing a willingness to sacrifice being a part of the starting five in favor of coming off the bench for the overall good of the team validates the leadership role the 16th-year veteran has showcased ever since switching locker rooms in LA and joining his co-stars George and Leonard on the Clippers. In the NBA, team-fit matters, as different lineups, and one’s role drastically can dictate performance on the court, not only for oneself but the team as a whole. If the Clippers can remain unselfish, by putting winning above personal achievements and stats, they may become what everyone anticipated they would be, a championship team.
On paper, the Clippers seemed like no-brainer title contenders when they acquired Harden through trade, although, with a team full of four potential future hall-of-famers, coach Lue and the team have acknowledged they will need to continue to work out the kinks relating to team chemistry issues.
“When we figure this out, it’s going to be scary,” Harden told Haynes. “We’re getting there. We’ll let others talk, and we’ll put the work in. It’s going to take some time, and that’s okay.”
Friday’s win allows the Clippers to improve to a 4-7 record and is definitely a step in the right direction. Even if the team isn’t necessarily “scary” yet, the big four and the rest of the Clippers will hope to build off of this win, to propel themselves forward en route to eventually becoming title contenders.
Undoubtedly, all the moves the Clippers have made recently have pointed to emphasizing a “win now” mentality, since their championship window may be closing with all four LA natives getting up there in age. Westbrook, 35, Harden, 34, George, 33, and Leonard, 32— all may be soon entering into the twilight of their careers, as Westbrook and Harden especially, who were once teammates in Oklahoma City and Houston, are still looking for their first ring.