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NBA

This Might Be Working After All

8:59 AM EST on December 19, 2023

James Harden dribbles up the court while smiling.
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers routed the Pacers Monday night, in Indiana. Thumping the slumping Pacers doesn't mean today what it meant a couple weeks ago—Indiana lost over the weekend to the Wizards, for crying out loud—but the Clippers made the home team look like a junior varsity squad and closed the competitive portion of the game with a vintage James Harden one-man surge that had the Indiana crowd hooting and hollering. It was Los Angeles's eighth consecutive victory, the longest active streak in the NBA and the franchise's longest since the 2015–16 season. God help me, I can feel myself beginning to believe not just in another James Harden team, but the Los Angeles actual damn Clippers.

Harden's first few games with the Clippers did not go well, following his forced November trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. The Clippers didn't appear to have any particularly clear ideas of how to integrate Harden into an offense that already featured lots of isolation basketball and an awful lot of contested jump shots; incorporating Harden's largely stationary offensive repertoire into the sludgy mix slowed the team's pace and ball-movement to cryogenic levels. The Clippers lost their first five games after the trade; their net rating over that span was on par with the horrendous Charlotte Hornets. And because the Clippers dished off everything of any conceivable future value in order to assemble the Harden-Paul George-Kawhi Leonard superteam, they appeared to be stuck helplessly in a mess of their own making.

But head coach Ty Lue warned at the outset that he would need 10 games, not five, to make this all make sense. It was after that fifth loss that Lue had his first flash of inspiration and made the decision to move Russell Westbrook to the bench. You would not have been off base to think that Lue had lost his mind: Westbrook was the only player on the entire roster who appeared capable of sprinting, and though he had not exactly played heroically across the five losses Westbrook did win his minutes in each of the last two. According to Lue it was Westbrook who brought the idea of moving to the reserves to the coaching staff, and it appears to have been a good one. Westbrook isn't exactly thriving in the bench role, although it's safe to say he is at the point in his career where "thriving" no longer means what it used to. But the move uncluttered Los Angeles's starting lineup and made it easier for Lue to stagger the minutes of his two principal playmakers, and it meant that Harden—by his own reckoning a system unto himself—could now be the team's point guard.

This has worked. In the time since Westbrook was shifted to the bench, the Clippers are 13–3 with the league's second-best net rating. They got into a rhythm in road wins over the shit-ass Spurs but have since beaten some pretty good teams. Monday's win, in Indiana, exemplified the model Lue and the Clippers are pursuing, even if it wasn't exactly a showcase of basketball purity. It was still very slow and stationary, but there was evident comfort and confidence to it, not just at the individual level but between teammates and lineups. Harden spent the first three quarters orchestrating from the top of the key and floating around the perimeter, operating more as a release valve than a primary scorer. Leonard and George did the bulk of the finishing, and yes, this featured lots of the kind of jump-shooting that for lesser mortals would signify a broken offense. But this is also, like, why the Clippers have these guys; it's how they became celebrated and famous basketball players. When it works it still looks sort of gloomy and rote, but it also looks kind of unstoppable.

It was over a six-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, with the Clippers up 15 and looking to close the competitive part of the game, that Harden allowed himself to shift into Step-Back Mode. You do not have to be a Harden enjoyer to admit that this sequence kicked ass. Harden sank a deep pull-up three over Bennedict Mathurin; a minute later, after the teams traded buckets, Harden splashed home another three from the wing following a loose-ball scramble. The next time down he threw a wicked crossover at Buddy Hield and glided into the paint for a layup. A minute later he engineered a defensive switch to isolate Obi Toppin, then drilled a step-back 28-footer to put the Clippers up 22 points. He liked that look enough to engineer it a second time on the subsequent possession, this time from the wing.

Somewhere in here the Pacers should've maybe considered a double-team, but they did not, and paid for it. On Los Angeles's next possession, Harden isolated against Hield, drove him back toward the free-throw line, then used one of his patented Extremely Not A Travel step-back moves to cover eight feet of space for another three-pointer. By now even the Pacers crowd was getting into it.

The sequence hit its climax on the next possession. Hield picked Harden up at half-court. Harden threw a couple dribble moves at him, got Hield onto his left hip, drove toward the right wing, stepped back, and drilled a 28-footer with Hield basically rummaging around inside his jersey. The refs whistled a shooting foul on the play, and though it was overturned on review it stopped play long enough for Harden to make snow angels on the court and then to make this face into a nearby camera:

James Harden screams into a camera.
Gaze into the darkness of James Harden's mouth.Screenshot via YouTube

Lue pulled Harden from the game after this bucket. In six minutes of the fourth quarter, Harden scored 21 points on eight shots. He finished the game with 35 points and nine assists, and the Clippers won his minutes by 32 points. Leonard and George combined for 55 points; in the 16 games since Harden was made the team's point guard, Leonard is shooting 56 percent from the floor, 45 percent from beyond the arc, and 92 percent from the stripe.

If it was reasonable to draw conclusions from this core of grouchy superstars not gelling across five games in November, then the only reasonable conclusion to reach after a month spent shredding all comers is that the Clippers are good as hell. It's the Clippers, and it's James Harden, so it's safe to assume that whatever can go wrong absolutely will, and at the worst possible time. But that's a problem for later. For now, the Clippers are a contender. "We're figuring it out," said Harden after the game, in a return to dead-eyed impassivity. "We've still got a long way to go, but we're definitely headed in the right direction."

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