Winless for nearly two weeks and trailing by 11 points entering the fourth quarter Sunday against Memphis, the comeback the Clippers desperately needed finally found traction.
And it happened in a way no one would have predicted — with James Harden, who was making his home debut as a Clipper, on the bench for nearly the entire fourth quarter.
With the Clippers outscored by 27 points in Harden’s first 27 minutes, coach Tyronn Lue kept Harden, the team’s new addition, seated after he went to the bench with 1:20 remaining in the third quarter to stick with a lineup featuring Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell and Terance Mann that had helped the Clippers outscore Memphis 24-9 over a six-minute period in the final quarter.
With 1:55 left in regulation, Lue then replaced Westbrook with Harden, who immediately made a tying three-pointer. But the comeback didn’t last — and meanwhile, the Clippers’ losing streak since dealing for Harden continues.
Their 105-101 loss to the Grizzlies, who entered on one of the NBA’s worst starts at 1-8, leaves the Clippers 3-6 and losers of their last five games while still trying to figure out who they are in this new Harden era. The road to their first win since Oct. 31 does not get any easier, with their next game in Denver, where the Clippers have not won since December 2020.
George scored 26 points, with seven rebounds and seven assists in a game that saw him play far more assertively than in Friday’s loss at Dallas in which he said he’d tried to be a “glue guy.” But George contributed seven of the Clippers’ 16 turnovers. Leonard scored 14 points and Westbrook added 12.
Harden scored 11 points while making four of his 12 shots, including one for seven on three-pointers. Lue said before tipoff that the 10-time All-Star guard had been trying too hard to fit in and said as much to the team during a practice Saturday in which he told the group it needed Harden to “be himself” as a primary ballhandler through whom the offense can flow.
“He feels more comfortable but he doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes and I understand that just to have respect for PG, Kawhi, Russ because they’ve been here,” Lue said. “But we need James to be James and so that’s on me to make sure I make him be James.”