Paul George’s three-pointer lifts Clippers past the Warriors

Estimated read time 6 min read

Between Thursday’s road loss to Golden State, and Saturday’s rematch in Los Angeles, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue asked James Harden to change the way he had been used to playing for the past decade.

That conversation led to another. Before tipoff Saturday inside Arena, Harden spoke with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the All-Star co-stars he has attempted to fit in alongside with mixed results and a sub-.500 record, about changing the way the team had played for the past month.

“We don’t want to keep going up and down,” Harden said. “I mean, we want to be consistent. I told P and [Kawhi] before the game, ‘Let’s catch our rhythm. Let’s be good, like we’re going to be later in the season. Let’s start it now.’”

In a season when every Clippers game has carried the air of a referendum on the franchise’s talent, roster-building and coaching decisions and its ultimate direction, these players and coaches understand all too well that time is not to be wasted. On Saturday, they displayed urgency while producing their inconsistent season’s most improbable victory — a 22-point comeback in a 113-112 win over Golden State capped by George’s three-pointer with 8.9 seconds left, followed by a final defensive stand keyed by Leonard and Russell Westbrook.

“We needed a win like this,” Lue said.

The Clippers (9-10) dug themselves an immediate hole. They mixed and matched lineups combinations and strategies to find the right pieces. They saw breakdowns — like a turnover by Leonard, followed by a clear-path foul by George that left the Clippers down five with 82 seconds to play — matched by breakthroughs.

It was, in other words, the past six weeks of Clippers basketball condensed into 48 minutes.

Afterward, Lue was left shaking his head, and players left wondering how much an emotional win such as this one — the team’s largest comeback since March of 2022 — could boost the team’s confidence. They are 6-8 with Harden in the lineup.

“We’ve been trying to be consistent,” Leonard said. “We are getting better, but very slow. We still got to keep the consistency up, so we can be a better team. You know, how things been going, it feels great to pull out a win.”

Down 19 at halftime and 22 only seconds into the third quarter, the Clippers trailed by two with 18 seconds left when Stephen Curry missed an 18-foot jump shot and Westbrook, inserted into the game after sitting for nearly nine minutes, collected the rebound. Instead of calling their final timeout to get Harden, who was on the bench because of a substitution made for defensive purposes, back in the game, Lue let the Clippers push the ball upcourt to “catch the defense scrambling,” George said.

His shot arched over the defense of Klay Thompson, George’s former AAU teammate in Southern California. It was the Clippers’ first lead. George finished with 25 points.

“I felt confident with the ball in my hand, so I just go to my spot,” George said. “There was only one of two options — either I make it or I miss it. It’s all how you look at it. No fear being in that moment.”

Harden scored 21 points, with nine assists, and Leonard had 20 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Six Clippers scored in double figures as Lue stayed with players he felt were in rhythm — playing reserve Norm Powell 26 consecutive game minutes in one stretch and backup center Daniel Theis 13 straight until the fourth quarter’s final minute.

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, when he left after only four minutes after re-aggravating a hamstring injury. Before that, he hadn’t played five or fewer minutes in an opening quarter since Feb. 4, 2016. The point being that since Harden graduated from Oklahoma City’s sixth man to Houston’s franchise cornerstone, he has been conditioned to a long opening runway, between nine and 12 minutes of the first quarter, in which to establish his rhythm.

Harden was brought back to begin the second as part of a lineup with reserves Westbrook, Powell, rookie Kobe Brown and 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.

Both Lue and Harden felt the change had the desired effect of “letting James be James and having the ball in his hands,” as Lue said — more comfortable with an ultra-green light to attack defenses without deferring. Harden took three shots in the paint in his first nine minutes against the Warriors — this after averaging just 2.3 shots within 10 feet of the rim per game since joining Los Angeles. He finished five of seven in the paint.

“Whatever the team needs,” Harden said. “Whether I’m playing the whole first quarter or playing six minutes and then coming back with the second unit, like, we’re trying to figure it out, we’re trying to get it right and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get it right.

“It was a conversation being had, ‘All right, let’s do it — if you like it, you like it, if you don’t like it it’s a conversation and then we just continue to build from there.’”

By the third quarter, as Lue opened by sitting starter Terance Mann for Powell, Harden didn’t need extra prodding. Feeling the offense was at a “standstill,” 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.

“It’s going to take — we’re all accustomed to scoring 30 and doing the high numbers or whatnot,” Harden said. “I think for me, I can only speak for myself though, I feel like I can contribute more to this team and I feel like we all get that mind-set to where we all contribute to this team in other ways other than what we’re used to, what we’re comfortable with, we’ll be good.”

The Warriors (9-11) have lost nine of their last 12 games and have blown a pair of 20-plus point leads in the past week. They also played without three injured rotation players Andrew Wiggins, Chris Paul and Gary Payton II.

“Great win, regardless of the circumstances,” George said. “To this point, every win is appreciated.”

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