A game featuring 10 players suddenly became a spotlight on just two during Monday’s opening quarter, as Clippers guard James Harden sized up the defense of San Antonio rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama at the top of the three-point arc.
Dribbling between his legs, Harden side-stepped to his right and pulled the ball into what looked to be one of his signature three-pointers, the kind a rookie known for his shot-blocking instincts would have read about in his scouting report. But when Wembanyama lunged forward, Harden was already dribbling past him — his hesitation move just a veteran’s trick to get into the paint for a left-handed floater.
As the ball fell through the net, backup guard Bones Hyland stood from his seat along the Clippers’ bench and mimicked a dance. It was like that all night, the Clippers controlling the tempo of a 124-99 victory against the outmatched Spurs, leading by as many as 28, and rarely finding themselves in moments of trouble while improving to 5-7.
“I think,” coach Tyronn Lue said, “we’re starting to get comfortable.”
At times, this looked like the Clippers as they imagined themselves when they traded for Harden three weeks ago — the players knowing clear, defined roles, Harden excelling as a facilitator with 10 assists and zero turnovers compensating for his four-for-12 shooting and 13 points. Paul George scored 28 points, Kawhi Leonard had 21 and Norman Powell and new backup center Daniel Theis each scored 19 points off the bench.
In reality, for the last three weeks, plays of ease like Harden’s blow-by of Wembanyama have been few and far between. Though they’d hoped to produce a dance of delicate timing between partners, the Clippers said from the first day of the Harden trade they understood this could be a balky process, which turned out to be a prophecy. While losing six straight games to fall to 3-7, the Clippers had often stepped on one another’s toes, the starting lineup unclear of who was leading and who was following as four future Hall of Famers tried to make their fit work.
“Just felt like nothing could go right,” Harden said.
Breaking their six-game losing streak Friday against Houston — with former starting point guard Russell Westbrook making his debut off the bench — lifted a metaphorical weight off the Clippers, Harden said.
“Once we got that first one it was like all right, cool, now we got an opportunity to keep building off of it,” he said. “We were doing some pretty good things. We had some really good quarters. The first quarter in Dallas [on Nov. 10], I can remember. And we gave ourselves a chance against Memphis. There were some pretty good — Denver, we started to play, we took them to the wire. We could feel our energy and things coming together. With that being said, it’s only what, seven games? Still got a long way to go.”
Their rout of San Antonio on Monday sent the Spurs to a ninth straight loss, with a rematch Wednesday.
“We expect to win coming into games now,” George said. “I think we have gone through the rough patch of how to play, what it looks like and we found success in who we are.”
Lue said he felt the team was beginning to understand how it needed to play with Westbrook coming off the bench in lineups also anchored by George for scoring pop.
“That was the biggest thing,” Lue said. “Just playing through PG more in that second unit and he kind of got going, got his rhythm. Still just figuring out, we understand our rotations and what we want to do. It’s going to be a process, we understand that, so tonight was a step in the right direction and was a good win for us the way we’ve been struggling.”
With San Antonio committing 15 turnovers and making only nine of its 36 three-pointers, and Wembanyama unable to make a dent with only nine points in 12 shots, the Clippers barely needed to play their starters in the final quarter.
The Clippers built an 11-point lead during a remarkably clean first half in which they finished with 14 assists and only two turnovers, and took 11 more free throws. Harden assisted on five of the team’s first 11 baskets. At game’s end, Lue’s eyes went to his team’s seven turnovers but 30 assists. The Clippers entered the night as the league’s leader by averaging 10 steals per game; against the Spurs, they finished with 15.
Westbrook attributed the success with steals — a turnaround for a team that has historically struggled to generate turnovers — to “just locking in, paying attention to scouting reports, actually putting a lot of effort on the defensive end.” Westbrook played 25 minutes off the bench and scored 10 points in his first zero-turnover game since March 15, which was 30 games ago.
San Antonio turned heads around the NBA by sweeping Phoenix on the road twice during the season’s second week as No. 1 overall draft pick Wembanyama refused to wilt against Kevin Durant. But there are reasons why the Spurs (3-11) have been in free fall since. Even when the Clippers made just two of their 12 three-pointers in the third quarter — with Harden personally making one of his six attempts — San Antonio missed all six of its tries. Seven of its possessions in the quarter were ended by Clippers steals.
The game was effectively over, the Clippers comfortable the rest of the night.