DALLAS – LA Clippers coach Ty Lue described his team’s performance in the first nine minutes Friday night as “a work of art.”
As for the rest of the 144-126 loss to the Dallas Mavericks? To put it politely: Consider it proof that the Clippers are a work in progress a few games after James Harden was traded to them following the blockbuster trade that freed him from the Philadelphia 76ers.
“What’s the worst you can be?” Lue said when asked to describe the rest of the game after the Clippers built a 12-point lead late in the first quarter. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be okay. That’s fine. We’ll be fine. You’d better take advantage of it now.”
The Clippers fell to 3-5 this season, including 0-3 with Harden in the lineup alongside likely future Hall of Famers Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook. LA dropped a total of 39 points in those games against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Mavs.
“I’m still confident,” said Leonard, who led the Clippers with 26 points. “I still feel like we’re learning each other, all the players and the coaching staff, and you can see some good things in the game tonight, even in the last game – we got some good leads. We just can’t sustain it.” And once we figure it out, we’ll move on. So we all have to stay afloat and stay confident and keep pushing each other to keep that goal mindset.”
Dallas responded to an initial deficit of dozens of points with a 35-4 run spanning nearly seven minutes that bridged the first and second quarters. The Mavs led by as many as 32 points thanks to a dominant performance from Luka Doncic, who scored 44 points on 17 of 21 shooting with six rebounds and six assists.
The Clippers’ stars didn’t play in the fourth quarter, which began with the Mavs leading by 26 points. Lue said he considered playing his starters despite the lopsided result because the Clippers need to develop on-court chemistry, but he decided against it in part because of a tip against the Memphis Grizzlies in the next game early Sunday afternoon.
“I think it was simple: Let’s get out of the game healthy and get ready for a 12:30 p.m. game on Sunday,” Lue said.
Harden, who didn’t play in the preseason as he was in the process of forcing a trade from Philadelphia, scored all 14 of his points in the first quarter Friday night. He was 3 of 3 from the floor in the first quarter and 0 of 3 the rest of the night. Harden, a three-time NBA scoring champion, averaged just eight field goals in his three games with the Clippers.
“I’m just getting used to it, you know what I mean?” Harden said. “There are just so many great talented players on this team, I had to find a way to still be aggressive, create shots or even create shots for myself. So the first quarter felt really good, on both sides of the ball, and then from there it went downhill. So I’m trying to find a balance of not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but just trying to be aggressive and be myself. So it’s a process, but it’s definitely a little frustrating. We like to win games. “
George particularly struggled against the Mavs, finishing the game with eight points on 3 of 12 shooting. He regretted that entering the game he focused on being a “glue guy” instead of being aggressive offensively.
“I thought, come in and save some energy for the other end, but it didn’t work again,” George said. “I let the team down with this approach but it won’t happen again. The mindset will always be attack mode.”
The Clippers try to find spacing and highlight each other’s talents at a moment’s notice. Harden acknowledged that part of that process ultimately involves figuring out how best to distribute touches among players who are used to being the focal point of the offense.
“We don’t know what that looks like yet just because it’s too early, and then we all bring different dynamics to the game,” said Harden, who is averaging 4.7 assists per game with the Clippers after leading the league with 10 .7 led the 76ers last season. “I think as far as the pecking order goes, I’m a facilitator and goalscorer. So if someone has something, I have no problem generating really good shots and making sure we get good shots possession after possession.” Because at the end of the day, I know that if I can do that, we’ll get good shots and have really good chances of winning. But we’ll all find out as the games go on.”
Leonard said he wasn’t surprised by the difficulties as the Clippers adjust to adding another ball-dominant player, but he saw “more downsides sooner” than he expected.
“We have four guys on the field who are used to having fun, who are used to finding a rhythm by just feeling and touching throughout the game,” Leonard said. “You could see it, you kind of saw it last year with Luka and Kyrie (Irving). They tried to figure it out. But like I said, if you just play more, you’ll start to figure out, OK, this guy needs this space here or he’s got it, let me get into another part of the game where I take us to the can bring victory.”
Lue continued to tinker with the rotation, looking for combinations that worked. He changed the lineup early in the second half, replacing center Ivica Zubac with guard/forward Terance Mann, but said he believed Harden needed to be paired regularly with a big man as his pick-and-roll partner. Lue was more dismayed by LA’s defensive miscues than its offensive woes, as the Mavs shot 52% from the floor, including 19 of 42 from 3-point range.
“I feel like you have to learn to just adapt,” George said. “It’s not about a ‘like’ perspective, he’s just trying it out too. We all try it, and that’s why I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m out there to try.” Just learn on the fly, figure it out on the fly, like we all do. So I’m going with what T-Lue sees out there and eventually it will work and no one will talk about the rotations and people on the floor and the staff.
Dallas faced similar difficulties after acquiring Irving in a blockbuster trade with the Nets before last season’s trade deadline. In games with Doncic and Irving in the lineup, he went 5-11 and fell from fourth in the Western Conference standings to 11th and back in the draft lottery.
Irving, who scored 27 points this season and helped the Mavs improve to 7-2, understands the frustration and confusion the Clippers are experiencing during their adjustment period.
“Right now they’re just having these ups and downs in the public forum where they’re being criticized for not winning games even though statistically and individually they’re just as good as anyone in the league,” Irving said. “Overall I know they will be better, but right now they are trying to find their way. I wish them all the best, but I’m glad they couldn’t do it against us tonight. We didn’t want that.”