The debut performance of the James Harden era did not go great for the Clippers, as they lost 111-97 to the Knicks on the road in a blowout.
The first half of the game was a complete slog. The Clippers were obviously integrating a major piece in Harden and looked like it, with 10 turnovers in the first. Surprisingly, Harden, the main addition, looked great, scoring 9 points on 4-5 shooting with three assists, three rebounds, and zero turnovers. The Clippers’ defense also held up well – though maybe that was just the Knicks’ terrible offense. The Knicks shot 37.5% from the field and 21.4% from three and looked every bit that bad. Nonetheless, the Clippers led 46-42 at the half.
The Clippers quickly extended their lead to six, but it was all downhill from there. The offense struggled outside of Kawhi Leonard iso ball, and the Knicks garnered a small lead. The rest of the quarter was a back and forth rock fight, with more scoring than the first half but also plenty of turnovers. However, at the 4:15 mark, Mason Plumlee went down with an injury, as Julius Randle dove into his legs going for a loose ball. Zu replaced him, and the Clippers battled on, with the game tied going into the fourth.
Ty decided, strangely, to tinker in the 4th, giving Moussa Diabate center minutes alongside PJ Tucker with Bones, Norm, and Harden. That lineup was as bad as you’d expect, giving up a 7-0 run in less than 90 seconds. Kawhi came in for Moussa to go with small ball, but that lineup played for less than a minute before the rest of the starters checked back. Unfortunately, the Clippers had let go of the rope, the Knicks had momentum, and the game was a blowout in the blink of an eye behind Clippers’ turnovers and Knicks scoring in transition. The Clippers trailed by 16 with 4:20 to go, and Ty went back to the bench for garbage time. The Clippers lost by 14, with their bench unable to make any dent in the Knicks’ lead.
Harden Debut: Statistically, James Harden had a great debut. He was 6-9 from the field, 2-4 from three, and 3-3 from the line for 17 points, an extremely efficient outing. He also chipped in three rebounds, six assists, and a steal with just two turnovers. He was, however, a team-worst -18, and was responsible for multiple breakdowns on defense and Knicks’ offensive rebounds. Still, while flawed, the offense was certainly there for Harden, and he made one of his beautiful step-back threes. The offense just did not look right with both Russ and Harden out there, as each played better alone. That will be something to monitor as the games roll along.
Substitution Patterns: Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee were first into the game at the 5:17 mark of the first quarter for Harden and Zubac. They played with the starters for a few minutes, and then around 2:30 Harden came back in along with Norm Powell for Westbrook and Leonard. Paul George stayed in the game for another minute before coming out for PJ Tucker, leaving Harden with the bench. This unit remained in the game for the start of the second quarter before the starters trickled back. The same patterns largely held true in the second half as well. On one hand, I like Harden being given the second unit to run on offense – and as we’ve discussed on TLTJTB, he will optimize Tucker. On the other, Harden, Bones, and Norm together with Plumlee/Moussa/Tucker on the backline is not tenable defensively. Still, it was just the first game.
Plumlee Injured: As mentioned above, Mason Plumlee went down in the late third quarter with a knee injury and had to be carried off the court. The Clippers deemed it a “knee sprain”, but an MRI will probably have to reveal the extent of the damage. Hopefully it was only twisted and Plumlee just misses a handful of games – but it could be a season-ender. If Plumlee is out, the Clippers will probably go with PJ Tucker as the backup center. Moussa Diabate got a handful of minutes in this one, and it remains ugly for him, especially on offense. Fingers crossed for Plumlee, but the Clippers’ backup center woes of last year might be returning.
Clippers Lose Possession Battle: I mentioned the Knicks’ offensive rebounding in the preview, and unfortunately my words proved accurate. The Knicks collected a ridiculous 18 offensive rebounds, resulting in their taking 15 more shots than the Clippers. The Knicks ended up shooting ok from the field, but they really won because the Clippers gave them so many chances between the offensive rebounds and the Clippers’ bonkers 22 turnovers. The turnovers will go down as the team gets acclimated, but the rebounding will probably be an issue all season, and might prove even more so without Plumlee.