LOS ANGELES — With 29.1 seconds left, the LA Clippers had possession in a game tied at 100 against the visiting Houston Rockets, winners of six-straight games. The Clippers were on a six-game losing streak, including five in a row with new trade acquisition James Harden.
But after being with Los Angeles all month, Harden finally had his moment. After receiving a pass from Kawhi Leonard with five seconds on the shot clock, Harden took two dribbles, starting to drive to his off hand before setting up his patented stepback 3. Not only was the go-ahead shot good, Harden also drew a foul on Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate that allowed the Clippers to put the game away with a 4-point play.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 18, 2023
The Clippers defeated the Rockets 106-100 behind Harden’s best performance as a Clipper, achieving season-highs of 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
“I didn’t have the energy to be yelling and all, but that was kind of my excitement,” Harden said after the game, which brought the Clippers’ record to 4-7. “The play was drawn up for Kawhi. My man came to help. He swung it to me. And I shot it. Something I work on every day.”
“No magic to it — I had the ball, I seen his guy kind of lagging a little bit, and I trusted him,” Leonard, who scored a game-high 26 points while adding eight rebounds, five steals and three 3s, said about Harden. “He’s one of the top 75 players this league has ever seen. And I gave him the ball, and he made the shot.”
Harden’s game winner came on the same night he officially took over as the team’s starting point guard, a role that Russell Westbrook held for every Clippers game since last season’s All-Star break. It was a move that at least worked for the first unit, as the five-man lineup of starters Harden, Leonard, Paul George, Ivica Zubac, and new starter Terance Mann outscored Houston 43-23 in nearly 16 minutes on the floor together.
“I thought we got off to a good start. Now, we just have to make sure that with the bench, we have the right rotations, the right minutes, and the right fit,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “But this is our first game trying to do it. We’ll be able to build from this one. But it’s better to build when you win than when you lose.”
The Clippers trailed by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter, and by five with the score at 99-94 with 2:16 left to play. Close games had been a major struggle for the Clippers, as they entered Friday night’s In-Season Tournament contest with a league-worst 0-5 record in clutch time games, defined by games where the score is within five points at any time during the last five minutes.
Being able to play with Zubac on the floor proved to be critical. His basket with 2:02 left to play, off of a Harden pass, was the first Clippers field goal in neatly four minutes. But Zubac’s basket started a 12-1 run, and Harden found Zubac again following a Leonard steal for a go-ahead dunk with 40.5 seconds left to play.
“It’s constant communication between me and big fella,” Harden said about Zubac, who finished with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, including a team-high three field goals in the fourth quarter. “I just want to see him reach his potential, which I’m here to do.”
While the Clippers outscored the Rockets by a team-best 12 points in Harden’s fourth-quarter minutes, the Clippers were outscored by a team-worst 8 points in Westbrook’s fourth-quarter minutes. Overall, Westbrook struggled, missing 7 of 9 shots and finishing with only eight points, three rebounds, and two assists in a season-low 17:23.
“It’s tough, you know, it’s tough,” George said about Westbrook not starting anymore. “With his energy, and obviously, it’s a ton of chemistry there. So we’ve always played well off of one another. But it takes a lot for his sacrifice, for us going forward, to try and figure things out. Can’t say enough just on the character of Russ, and just his leadership.”
The Clippers have two days off before starting a two-game miniseries Monday on the road against the San Antonio Spurs. Harden has the monkey off his back, but he knows there is more work to do to get the Clippers back over .500 and get the team to start approaching a level of play that meets expectations.
“I mean, come on, we got to get better,” Harden said tonight. “And we will get better.”
(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)