April 24, 2024

The Clippers spent Saturday afternoon much as they’d spent their past month: immediately digging themselves into an enormous hole, then furiously working to extricate themselves.

How they ultimately come out of their all-in move to acquire James Harden is a long-term question that won’t be known for months. But Saturday, they had just enough to pull off what was badly needed — a comeback that improves their record to 9-10.

Trailing by as many as 22 points, the Clippers trailed by two with 18 seconds left when Stephen Curry missed an 18-foot jump shot and Russell Westbrook collected the rebound. Instead of calling their final timeout, with Harden on the bench because of a substitution made for defensive purposes, coach Tyronn Lue let the Clippers push the ball up court. The choice paid off, as Paul George stepped into a winning three-pointer with 8.9 seconds to play.

The Clippers escaped when Draymond Green missed a corner shot as time expired, ending a 113-112 victory.

George’s basket gave the Clippers their first lead of the game. He finished with 25 points.

Harden scored 21 points with nine assists, and Kawhi Leonard had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Six Clippers scored in double figures.

The game started with a strategic switch, as the 5 minutes, 26 seconds Harden played were his fewest in a first quarter since April 5, 2021, a game he left after only four minutes because of reaggravating a hamstring injury. Before that, he hadn’t played less than five minutes in an opening quarter since Feb. 4, 2016. The point being that for the past decade, since Harden graduated from Oklahoma City’s sixth man to Houston’s franchise cornerstone, he has been conditioned to a long opening runway in which to establish his rhythm.

“I mean, I’m used to it,” Harden had said three weeks earlier, when asked specifically whether he preferred to start games with a long opening stretch.

Harden was brought back to begin the second quarter as part of a lineup with reserves Kobe Brown, Westbrook and Norman Powell plus starting center Ivica Zubac. The move came three days after Lue, speaking at the team’s shootaround in Sacramento, signaled he agreed with the premise that Harden might feel more comfortable being more aggressive offensively if he were paired in more lineups with reserves, rather than having his minutes effectively tethered to Leonard and George, his fellow ball-dominant co-stars.

Whether the change gave him the feeling of an even brighter green light to shoot, or the flow of this specific game against this specific defense, Harden took three shots in the paint in his first nine minutes against the Warriors — after averaging only 2.3 shots within 10 feet of the rim per game since joining the Clippers.

This wasn’t a measure to reduce his minutes — only Leonard played more first-half minutes than Harden’s 17 — but modify their structure. But it couldn’t fix that Golden State scored 10 unanswered points to end the first half leading by 19, then increased that lead to 22 early in the third quarter.

If Lue’s rotation change was made to awaken Harden, the guard didn’t need extra prodding in the third quarter, as he scored 15 points and his four assists led to 10 more points in less than nine minutes while playing alongside Leonard and George. The stretch ignited the comeback.

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