FOX Sports NBA Writer
This was clearly not what James Harden envisioned when he imagined his LA Clippers debut at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
His new team struggled against the sputtering New York Knicks, falling 111-97. They had 22 turnovers, far more than the 15.2 they’re averaging this season. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue waved the white flag with 4:25 left, pulling his starters.
That said, there were also a lot of positives.
Harden, who forced his way off the Philadelphia 76ers to team up with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, let the game come to him. For a guy who is known for requiring the spotlight and recently said “I’m not a system player, I’m a system,” he put into practice the selfless approach he and the team’s other superstars have been espousing since they joined forces a week ago.
Harden didn’t even attempt a shot in the first quarter. He picked his spots, showing flashes of the kind of complementary player he could be to one of the best foursomes (at least on paper) in league history.
Just under three minutes into the game, he threw a no-look bounce pass to a cutting Ivica Zubac, who converted a contested layup. His first basket was a stepback jumper over Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett just over two minutes into the second quarter.
He closed the third quarter by making a driving 10-foot floater followed by a contested 3-pointer on consecutive possessions to give the Clippers a 3-point lead, 76-73, with 11.1 seconds left. He opened the fourth by drawing a foul on a 3-point attempt and making all three free throws.
Harden finished with an efficient 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting and a team-high six assists in 31 minutes. He looked comfortable. He didn’t force anything.
If George and Leonard had one of their typical nights, the game could’ve looked very different. George, who is averaging 28.8 points on 56 percent shooting this season, shot 2-for-11 and finished with just 10 points. Leonard had 18 points, a drop-off from the 23 points he has had through five games.
There’s no question that it was an off night for the Clippers.
But Harden seemed to fit in. If anything, the three-time scoring champion deferred too much considering how efficiently he was playing.
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Combining four future Hall-of-Famers is a challenging exercise. If anything, Lue’s job just became harder when the Clippers acquired Harden. It’s like tasking a chef to make sense of a meal that features four main entrées. Or asking four rock stars with different styles to harmonize.
Harden started alongside Leonard, George, Westbrook and Zubac. At one point, he led the second unit alongside Bones Hyland, Norm Powell, PJ Tucker and Mason Plumlee.
This will be ever-evolving. There are so many combinations Lue can turn to with so many talented players.
So what if Game One of this new era was a flop. The Clippers were outscored in the fourth quarter, 35-21, and out-rebounded in the game, 30-24. Guys are going to have to learn how to play without an ego, while still being aggressive. And how to compensate for their relative holes in the midst of a surplus of such scoring power.
It’s going to be a work in progress.
But there’s no question that Monday also left seeds of excitement.
This team could be great. Harden could work. The Clippers could be contenders.
Now, they just need to figure out how to actualize potential, perhaps a far more challenging task than anything the superstars have accomplished yet on their own.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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