LOS ANGELES, CA-So far, so good. In their last two contests at home, the Los Angeles Clippers have taken down the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets in back-to-back games. That’s an impressive way to open up the season for a team playing without the loaded banter of a superstar player on their roster.
Granted, the Clippers beat both Oklahoma City and Houston with a caveat as both the Thunder and the Rockets were without the main engines that help make them go-Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
Nevertheless, the two victories were good wins for the Clippers, a team racing to find its identity. Thanks to a re-tooled roster, complete with the washing away of the whole “Lob City” crew, including Paul, part of that identity search is knowing who the go-to person is when it comes down to putting the ball in the basket when the time calls for it.
The Clippers have capable scorers in NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, an underrated Tobias Harris, and Danilo Gallinari. The biggest challenge this season for the Clippers is being in sync with one another, especially on the offensive end. That didn’t seem like that was a problem against the Rockets. Led by a 13-point scoring surge by Gallinari, the Clippers exploded for 39 points in the third quarter on their way to a 115-112 win at Staples Center on Sunday.
“Tonight was tough, it really was,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “I don’t think I have had more debate on the sideline in my coaching career, I am not exaggerating. Trying to figure out the right defensive-offensive lineup to play was tough. They put so many combinations out there and I think it was Rex [Kalamian] who gave me the courage to put Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] on [James] Harden down the stretch because we needed his ball handling. It is the way he runs the team, in the game it was the right decision but it was scary. Shai really handled it well so I was proud of him.”
Gallinari finished the game for the Clippers with 20 points. Harris was the high-point man for Los Angeles, netting 23 points in the victory. But the trickle-down effect made its way down the Clippers’ lineup as Montrezl Harrell came out with a big game, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Williams and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both contributed 10 points apiece in the victory.
The Clippers needed all 39 of those points in the third period. The Rockets, down by 10 points with 3:39 remaining in the game, decided it was not going to concede the contest without a fight. Leading the charge was James Harden. Harden finished the game with 31 points, including a four-point play with less than 30 seconds left on the clock to bring the Rockets within three points of the Clippers.
Fortunately, for the Clippers and Harrell, who fouled Harden on his three-point shot to allow the NBA superstar to complete the four-point play, time ran out on the Rockets.
“That had nothing to do with James being James,” Harrell said afterward. “That had everything to do with (Mon)Trezl doing the wrong defense. A type of play like that I tried to run him off the three-point line. But even when I did, I can’t come back and foul the guy right there and give him a four-point play. I got to know the time of possession. Right there, I’m beat. There was nothing I could do…that could have been the play that cost us the game. It’s really not about James being James. It’s about carrying out the right defensive principals and doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Houston outscored the Clippers in the final quarter, 28-22, with Harden leading the way with 11 points. And when they needed to, the Clippers came up key defensive stops during the game. Adding to his already breakout performance, Harrell was all in the Rockets’ business, blocking three shots. The Clippers blocked seven of Houston’s field attempts.
“I think we are in a good place. We understand the personnel that we have and what they’ve done throughout their careers as defensive players. They know what it takes,” Williams said. “So, two back-to-back efforts on a defensive end, tilt your head and get ready for the next one.”