DALLAS — LA Clippers coach Ty Lue described his team’s performance for 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 joined them following the blockbuster trade that freed him from the Philadelphia 76ers.
“What’s the worst that you can be?” Lue said when asked for his description for the remainder 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 good. That’s all right. We’ll be all right. They better take advantage of it now.”
The Clippers dropped to 3-5 on the season, including 0-3 with Harden joining likely future Hall of Famers Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook in the lineup. LA has suffered losses to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Mavs in those games by a combined 39 points.
“I’m still confident,” said Leonard, who led the Clippers with 26 points. “I still feel like we’re learning each other, the whole players and coaching staff, and you see a little bit of good things in the game tonight, even last game — having some good leads. We’re just not sustaining it and once we figure it out, we’re going to keep it rolling. So we all got to stay afloat and stay confident and keep pushing one another to keep that mindset on the goal.”
Dallas responded to the early dozen-point deficit with a 35-4 run over a span of almost seven minutes bridging the first and second quarters. The Mavs led by as many as 32 points, riding a dominant performance from Luka Doncic, who finished with 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 score because of the need for the Clippers to develop on-court chemistry, but he decided against it in part because of an early Sunday afternoon tip against the Memphis Grizzlies in their next game.
“I think it was just, let’s get out of the game healthy and get ready for a 12:30 game on Sunday,” Lue said.
Harden, who did not play in the preseason while he was in the process of forcing a trade from Philadelphia, scored all 14 of his points Friday night in the first quarter. 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, has attempted an average of only eight field goals in his three games with the Clippers.
“Just getting used to it, you know what I mean?” Harden said. “There’s just so many great talented players on this team, I got to find a way to still be aggressive, generating shots or creating shots for myself, as well. So first quarter felt really good on both ends of the ball, and then from there it went downhill. So trying to find a balance of not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but just trying to still be aggressive and be myself. So it’s a process, but it’s definitely a little frustrating. We do like to win games.”
George especially struggled against the Mavs, finishing with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting. He lamented entering the game with a focus on being a “glue guy” instead of being aggressive offensively.
“I thought come in and save some energy for the other end, but again, it didn’t work,” George said. “I let the team down with that approach, but again, it won’t happen again. The mindset will be an attack mode at all times.”
The Clippers are attempting to figure out spacing and how to accentuate each other’s talent on the fly. Harden acknowledged that part of that process is eventually determining how to best divide touches among players who are accustomed to being offensive focal points.
“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 for the 76ers last season. “I think for me, as far as the pecking order, I think I’m a facilitator and a scorer, so if somebody has it going then I have no problem generating really good shots and making sure we get quality shots possession by possession. Because I know at the end of the day if I’m doing that, then we’re getting good shots, then we got a really good chance of winning. But we’re all figuring that out as games go by.”
Leonard said he isn’t surprised by the struggles as the Clippers adjust to the addition of another ball-dominant player, but he’s “seeing more of the downside early” than he expected.
“We have four guys on the floor that are used to having a ball, used to finding a rhythm just by feeling and touching it all game,” Leonard said. “You could see it, you kind of seen it with Luka and Kyrie [Irving] last year. They was trying to figure it out. But like I said, just playing more, you’ll start to figure out, OK, this guy needs this spot here or he got it going, let me buy in into another part of the game where I can make us win.”
Lue continued tinkering with the rotation in search for combinations that work. He changed the lineup to start the second half, replacing center Ivica Zubac with guard/forward Terance Mann, but said he believes that Harden needs to be paired with a big man as his pick-and-roll partner on a regular basis. Lue was more dismayed with LA’s defensive execution lapses than the offensive struggles, as the Mavs shot 52% from the floor, including 19-of-42 from 3-point range.
“I feel like you got to learn to just adjust,” George said. “It’s not from a ‘like’ standpoint, it’s just he’s trying this out, too. We’re all trying to try this out and so I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m out there to try to just learn on the fly, figure it out on the fly as we all are. So I’m rolling with what T-Lue sees out there and again, at some point it’s going to work and nobody’s going to talk about the rotations and guys on the floor and personnel.”
Dallas endured similar struggles after acquiring Irving in a blockbuster trade with the Nets before last season’s trade deadline, going 5-11 in games with Doncic and Irving in the lineup together and falling from fourth in the Western Conference standings to 11th place and into the draft lottery.
Irving, who scored 27 points to help the Mavs improve to 7-2 this season, can empathize with the frustration and confusion the Clippers are experiencing during their adjustment period.
“Right now, they’re just going through those ups and downs in the public forum where they are getting criticized for not winning games even though they’re as great as anyone in the league statistically and individually,” Irving said. “Collectively, I know that they’ll be better, but right now they’re trying to find their way. Wish ’em well, but I’m glad they didn’t figure it out tonight against us. We didn’t want that.”