NEW YORK — Despite it feeling “kind of weird” to play in his first game of the season following no training camp with the LA Clippers, James Harden had no trouble seeing what he, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook can do together.
“Unlimited possibilities,” Harden said.
Harden made his long-awaited debut for the Clippers on Monday night, and while the New York Knicks spoiled the occasion with a 111-97 win at Madison Square Garden, the Clippers were keeping their eyes on the big picture and what they believe will be exciting times ahead.
Harden made 6 of 9 shots and finished with 17 points and six assists in 31 minutes. He admitted it felt strange playing in his first game without going through training camp or preseason with the Clippers following last week’s trade from Philadelphia.
“I feel kind of weird out there,” Harden said. “But just not really having a preseason game or an opportunity to participate in the full training camp or none of that. It was just [being] out there and just basically winging it. Try to go off my basketball instincts and what I’ve been doing for the last few years or whatnot. I just went out there and playing and thinking the game and trying to make the game easier for everybody else.”
The Clippers started their four stars together with center Ivica Zubac. While all four scored in double figures, with Leonard finishing with a game-high 18 points, the Clippers looked out of sync trying to feel one another out on several occasions.
They turned the ball over 22 times, leading to 35 Knicks points. They were outrebounded 48-31 and surrendered 18 offensive rebounds. And they couldn’t get stops in the second half, giving up 69 points to the Knicks after halftime.
Making matters worse, the Clippers might have suffered a significant blow to their second unit. Backup center Mason Plumlee had to be carried off by two Clippers staffers after Julius Randle went flying into the side of his left leg. Plumlee was ruled out in the third quarter with a sprained left knee and will be further evaluated on Tuesday.
Harden might have to do more with the second unit. After Clippers coach Ty Lue started Harden, he had the point guard run the second team as well.
While Lue said Harden naturally got tired in his first game action of the season, the coach saw things he liked from Harden. On an early pick-and-roll with Zubac, Harden delivered a pinpoint bounce pass that wrapped around a defender and spun to Zubac, who drew a foul inside.
“I thought overall just orchestrating,” Lue said of Harden’s playmaking. “Making the right play, making the right pass and pick-and-rolls, he was really good. It’s going to take him a little time to get in game shape. We understand that, but his presence on the floor was definitely felt.”
Lue feels that after 10 games, he will have a better idea of how this will work and what he will need to potentially tweak.
“He did a good job his first game in a while,” Leonard said of Harden. “And it takes time to get his legs under him as far as conditioning. But he did a great job to me, got everybody involved running pick-and-roll very well.”
Lue said entering the game that he has scripted how he will stagger his stars with the second unit and his rotations “a thousand times.”
He certainly didn’t envision having to pull his starters out of the game for good with 4:25 left and the Clippers trailing 104-88.
But Lue said he won’t overreact and “I’m not going to panic right now.” He saw sacrifice from his stars and a willingness to make this work.
Westbrook finished with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists while making 8 of 13 shots. But George cooled off from his hot start to the season with 10 points and 2-for-11 shooting.
Still, he came out of Monday night feeling very optimistic.
“When it comes down to the talent aspect, this is one of the [most] talented teams I’ve played for,” George said. “We’ll figure it out. First game. A lot of moving pieces, but it was fun. Playing on the court with those guys was fun and a lot of optimism going forward.”