The Clippers started the game just as drearily as they played most of the past three games, with multiple bad turnovers and the Grizz scoring the other way giving Memphis an early 7-0 lead. Fortunately, some Grizzlies’ sloppiness gave the Clippers a 7-0 run of their own to tie the game. Norm and Moussa came in early for Russ and Zu, and a further stretch of bad offense and poor transition defense saw the Grizzlies go on a 12-0 run. The Clippers finally decided to run offense through Harden and Kawhi, with some Kawhi midrangers helping get the Clippers’ offense going. Sadly, the Clippers’ defense did not improve with the offense, as the Grizz went 7-9 from deep in the opening period to put them up 33-20.
The second quarter began with a Russ, Norm, Mann, PG, and Zu lineup. While a bit undersized, this unit played good defense, highlighted by Mann at point of attack and Zu around the rim. Meanwhile, Russ pushed the pace to score and to get PG easy buckets, enabling PG to start cooking as a scorer. The Clippers cut the deficit all the way down to one before Kawhi came back into the game for Norm, with Moussa checking in for Zu. The Clippers then briefly took a lead after a Terance three, capping a 19-3 run up until the 5:29 mark of the quarter. At that point, the starters re-emerged as a unit, and the Clippers started to lag. At the 2:05 mark, Russ checked out for Mann with the Clippers down 44-43. In those last two minutes, the Grizz went on an 8-2 run, giving them the 52-45 lead at halftime.
The Clippers started the 3rd quarter on a similar note, with decent process but missed shots and poor defense. The result was another Grizzlies 7-0 run that point them up by 14. The Clippers came back a bit to cut the lead to 9, but could go no further. Once again Norm for Russ was the first sub, followed by Moussa for Zu a couple minutes later and then Mann for PG. After another minute or so, Moussa was hit in the face and had to leave the game, with Zu returning. The Clippers didn’t play terribly the rest of the period, but could not string together enough made shots or stops to cut into the deficit, and trailed 79-68 after three.
The fourth quarter started with a Russ, Norm, Mann, PG, and PJ lineup. A PJ corner three (finally) and Mann dunk got the Clippers within single digits and also started to engage the crowd. A wide open Russ three miss in transition seemed like a potential rally killer, but the Grizz missed the other way and then three consecutive threes by Norm and PG tied it up at the 6:35 mark. The Grizzlies finally put Bane and Smart back in, and buckets by Bane pushed the Grizz back up five. Kawhi then checked back in, and the game started to go back and forth. Norm was the key guy for the Clippers, while Smart and Bane headed the Grizz attack. At the 1:55 mark, with the Grizz up three, Harden came back for Russ. After a Clippers miss, Harden tipped the board to himself and drained the three to tie things up at 1:30, with the crowd going crazy. Unfortunately, from there, Biyombo was fouled, made 1-2 free throws, Kawhi missed a shot, and then great Clippers defense was blown up by an even better pass by Marcus Smart, who found Roddy for a layup to put the Grizz up 3. The Clippers, down 101-98, were gifted the ball after a Harden miss due to a Ty challenge, but Kawhi could not connect. The Grizz made their free throws and ultimately won 105-101.
Harden Controversy: We are just four games into the James Harden Clippers’ experience and there’s controversy already. The Clippers are, of course, 0-4 in those games, and they were a -28 in Harden’s 29 minutes in this one – meaning they were +24 in the 19 minutes he was off the court. Harden’s box score doesn’t read as being awful (and he wasn’t), but the Clippers look more decisive on offense when he sits. They also look better defensively, but I think in this one that had more to do with the Grizzlies’ bench being terrible. Harden was himself benched for most of the 4th quarter, and while the Clippers are obviously going to give this experiment more time, the fans are turning on Harden already. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t awful in this one, but the Clippers need to figure out how to integrate him with other guys (his pick and rolls with Zu work but don’t give much for the other Clippers’ stars to do) very soon or things could get ugly.
Kawhi Struggles: For all of the Harden talk, Kawhi Leonard was a -18 in his 37 minutes and was just 6-16 for 14 points, though he did fill out the rest of his box score. More importantly, he rarely got opportunities where he looked comfortable, though his setting picks for Harden has some long-term potential. Kawhi Leonard is the Clippers’ best player, and he simply hasn’t been good enough this season, Harden or no Harden. He also showed rare signs of frustration in this one, notably at Ivica Zubac in the late 3rd quarter after a miscommunication on offense. Hopefully we see a monster Kawhi game soon, as he really hasn’t had a standout performance 9 games into the season.
Changed Rotations: Ty Lue has been switching things up a lot in each game rotation wise, and did so again in this one. The Harden and Kawhi pairing late into the 1st and 3rd quarters with Russ and PG off the bench remained the same. This time, however, it was Norm checking in for Russ early and playing huge minutes, and Bones Hyland didn’t play at all. Moussa Diabate also got regular run, coming in early for Zu so Zu could return with the “bench” unit (though really comprising three starters). In short, Ty is keeping at least two starters in at all times, a good idea in theory. In practice, the starters were awful again, and while not playing Bones makes sense considering the Clippers’ excess of ball-handling and lack of size, it does not seem like a great long-term talent play. I think things are still getting better here, however.