Clippers-Knicks: 5 takeaways from James Harden’s debut

James Harden scored 17 points in his Clippers debut as New York fell.

New York – Before his team lost by 14 points in James Harden’s debut on Monday, LA Clippers head coach Ty Lue had the right sentiment.

„That’s good [the trade for Harden] It happened early in the season,” he said. „We had a long time to figure things out.”

It was Game 6 of 82. It wasn’t pretty; The Clippers’ 22 turnovers were four more than they committed in their first five games. But this team has four incredibly talented players who can complement each other well, and it still has 76 games to play.

Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and pictures from Harden playing for a fourth different team in the last three years.


1. A starry array

Lue put all four of his future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup on Day 1. There might be a (non-injury) lineup change at some point, but right now there’s no time to look at Harden, Paul. George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook can work together. After all, we don’t know how much the four games will get.

Lue started garbage time with 4:25 left in the fourth quarter, and their time together was cut short when his team was down 14 points. But the four stars played 19.2 minutes together and registered a minus-10 in that time with ugly numbers on both ends of the floor:

  • On offense, the Clippers scored 37 points on 39 possessions (95 of 100) with eight turnovers.
  • On defense, they allowed 47 points on 39 possessions (121 of 100).

2. One of the best pick-and-roll passers in the game

As talented as George, Leonard and Westbrook, none of them can match Harden as a pick-and-roll playmaker. While it may seem like overkill to have multiple players better with the ball in hand, the new guy adds to the mix.

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„He’s a guy we can pick up and keep rolling,” Lue said before the game, „make the right play, make the right pass, make the right read.”

A big reason why Joel Embiid won the NBA MVP award last season was because he passed the ball to Harden on the pick-and-roll. Ivica Zubac isn’t an MVP candidate, but his new teammates will get him some easy buckets. The pick-and-roll Harden put on display early, through the legs of Mitchell Robinson at Nutmeg to set up free throws for Ivica Zubac and steady assists for Zubac:

Three possessions later, Harden set up Zubach for the Clippers’ first field goal.

Passes to the roll man will be important because over the past few years, the Clippers have been a jump-shooting team. Westbrook helped them put more pressure on the rim, and Harden’s passing could do the same.

Harden also got an open 3 on Norman Powell late in the first half with a pick-and-roll drive.

Harden said his role as a ball-handler is „making the best shot, whoever’s open. The defense dictates that.


3. Various activities

The Clippers didn’t rely too much on the Harden/Zubak pick-and-roll. Here’s some other action we saw in the first half:

Pick and roll in the dunker spot (baseline, outside the paint) with George/Jubac Horton and Leonard Spacey and Westbrook.

  • George/Westbrook pick-and-roll with Jubach in the dunker spot.
  • „Spain” or „Stack” picks and rolls, Westbrook handles and George sets the big screen.

Harden is a pick-and-roll savant. Westbrook pressures the rim. Leonard is an iso machine with whom the Clippers can go matchup hunting. And George can fill any role on the floor, the Clippers running some sets on Monday where he curls the ball off screens to the top of the floor.

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„The possibilities are limitless,” Harden said of the Clippers’ potential.


4. Kawhi Leonard is „the best player.”

Sacrifices must be made with this group. The collective will be incredibly good, but the stars’ individual numbers won’t be what we’ve seen when there’s less top-line talent around them.

Leonard was a little lost in the first half of the Clippers offense. So Lue secured scoring position early in the third quarter. On the first possession, he rolled off a strong Westbrook screen and got to the rim:

Kawhi Leonard Dunk

The Knicks did better on the next possession, but Leonard still got a decent look in the post.

When asked about the purpose of those first two possessions, Lue was clear.

„He’s the best player,” he said of Leonard. „Everybody has to make sacrifices, but I thought, with the match for Saffron, we could attack a little bit more instead of spreading it out.”

Midway through the third quarter, Harden Leonard got an open 3. But Leonard isn’t a catch-and-shoot quick-release guy when he’s on the ball. He eventually got Harden an open look, but he hesitated before missing a tough lateral 3.

James Harden misses a 3-pointer

In the fourth quarter, Leonard Harden got another open look from a pick-and-roll feed to the strong-side corner. He drained it.

„Be ready to shoot,” Leonard bluntly said when asked about playing with Harden. „He comes off the pick and roll, he can make plays and you’re usually open. So be ready to shoot the ball. It’s simplicity.”


5. Harden operates the second unit

Last season, the top four combined for minutes played in a game was 24.3. So for at least half the game, no fewer than four Clippers’ stars will be on the floor. When they’re all healthy, Lou always has at least one or two on the floor. But over the next five months, he needs to figure out which combinations work best.

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On Monday, Harden was the first of four subs, then came back in the first and third quarters to lead the Clippers’ second unit with Ponce Hyland, Norman Powell, PJ Tucker and Mason Plumlee.

„It’s what I need to do for the coach and the team, honestly,” Harden said of the second-unit role. „I’m more versatile. More pick-and-rolls in that second unit.

That is why he was put in that place.

„I like him to have the ball in his hands,” Lue said, „make plays and score the basketball, run pick-and-rolls.”

The Knicks had their best stretch against a Harden-plus-reserve unit, going on a 10-0 run in the third and fourth quarters that gave New York a seven-point lead. The rest of the Clippers’ stars soon returned to the floor, but couldn’t stop the Knicks’ offense. New York scored on the first 10 possessions of the final period, the Clippers’ poor offense couldn’t keep up and Lue quickly pulled the plug.

Next up for the Clippers is the Nets at Brooklyn on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). They then play the first in-season tournament game at Dallas on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

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John Schuhman is a senior statistical analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and Follow him on Twitter.

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