Erratic offense dooms Clippers in James Harden’s debut

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Lethargic fourth quarter by the Clipper offense leads to blowout win for the Knicks

NEW YORK – In James Harden’s Clipper debut, it looked like a team that was just thrown together…and it is. The Knicks energy and rebounding completely took the Clippers out of the game down the stretch in a 111-97 win at Madison Square Garden.

For all of the hype and anticipation for such a game, it seemed to be a bit of a letdown in a multitude of ways for the Clippers. Defensively, they were stout, forcing more than nine turnovers in the first half and looked like the same team we had seen at home against the Spurs. 

Then, as the offense sputtered, so too did the Clipper defense as the Knicks ran in transition and forced 22 turnovers for Los Angeles en route to a huge fourth quarter. It seemed like this new look offense could never find a rhythm for more than 3 possessions in a row, which is to be expected, but also disappointing. Russell Westbrook had a great first quarter and looked just as comfortable as previous games, but Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were out of sorts all night on Monday. 

The Clippers are now 3-3 and the 7 seed in the Western Conference. 

Here are my three takeaways:

As I mentioned previously, the offensive end is what stuck out like a sore thumb in James Harden’s debut. Harden himself actually looked the best out of all four of the stars in the starting lineup, which bodes well for the future and getting the others acclimated around him. He finished with 17 points and 6 assists on good efficiency, with some passes made to his teammates that I haven’t seen a Clipper point guard make since Chris Paul.

Paul George has had an MVP type start for this Clipper team and it comes after an off-season filled with quotes from George looking to reclaim himself as one of the top players in the league. I do think this trade for James Harden will have George looking to find different ways to score than he has been, which is why he went 2-11 from the field and just could not get any type of rhythm going. He will adjust as time goes on, and I believe that George is the one best suited to play off-ball with Harden and Westbrook. 

I know this probably isn’t rocket science or a hot take, but after Monday night’s disappointing performance in New York, the point should be reiterated to the guys in the locker room. Kawhi Leonard has “been there and done that” more than any other player on the team and he should be treated as such within the construct of the new offensive system.

While Leonard did have 18 points and 5 rebounds, he too, like Paul George, did not look to be in any sort of flow or pace on offense. There was a bit of a hierarchy that took place for scoring, when instead it should just flow and happen on the fly. Harden himself said that he plays better when being more “free” on offense, and I believe that is the best way to keep Kawhi Leonard engaged and at his peak. 

Although there is plenty of star power to go around, issues still face this team. Mason Plumlee went down with a knee injury that initially looked bad after Julius Randle fell into his leg, but according to reports, he avoided a season-ending injury. While Plumlee isn’t out for the season, he will still probably miss a couple months, which means there is a question regarding the backup center position.

There were questions about the Clippers ability to match up with length before this injury, but now it is almost a must to sign a power forward and backup big. There are plenty of options in free agency, and I still believe that the center position is the easiest to fill on a veteran minimum, but there are concerns due to the fact that the Clippers have lost their 3 games due to a lack of rebounding. 

I guess my main point here is that letting go of Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington have had impacts on this team in a few ways, but that is the price you pay for a talent like James Harden.

The Clippers stay in New York as they take on the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 4:30 PM PST.