Clippers drop fifth in a row as late rally falls short against the Grizzlies

LA Clippers guard Russell Westbrook, left, shoots against Memphis Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart during the first half of an NBA basketball game,, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Clippers guard Russell Westbrook tries to score inside against Grizzlies guard Marcus Smart during the first half Sunday. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

It took 12 days for the Clippers to make their first course correction since acquiring James Harden.

It will take at least two more, however, to get their first win of the Harden era.

Since the Clippers acquired the 10-time All-Star from Philadelphia, the team had reiterated that success would hinge on the sacrifices made by its four future Hall of Fame stars, including Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard. But during a practice Saturday, coach Tyronn Lue told the assembled roster that Harden was trying too hard to fit in, and that fixing the Clippers’ struggles would start by ensuring the ball would be in his hands.

“We need James to be James,” Lue said, and by that he meant not an off-the-ball, spot-up shooter as he had attempted while getting comfortable in his first three games as a Clipper, but as a bearded vessel through whom the offense would flow, primarily as a pick-and-roll creator, the kind of role that once made him a most valuable player.

Lue also let it be known George could not approach games as the team’s “glue guy,” but as what he termed a “bad mother” — an assertive, elite scorer that has made him an eight-time All-Star.

One day later in Harden’s home debut Sunday, they lost their fifth consecutive game to fall to 3-6, a 105-101 defeat to a Memphis team that had entered after one of the league’s worst starts. The loss laid bare again the frustrations of a team equal to any in talent but far behind in rhythm.

Read more: James Harden out to prove 'everything' after Philly fallout: 'They didn't want me'

‘That's why it's more frustrating because we're all competitors and we all want to win,” said Harden, who scored 11 points. “All got positive energy, all trying to figure it out. Obviously it's tough losing games consecutively but we're all in this thing together. We all know the bigger picture.”

Lue felt Harden remained “too polite” with his play and the team as a whole too slow with its pace as it incorporates three stars used to operating in isolation with Westbrook’s uptempo pace.

“I think that’s what we haven’t figured out yet,” said George.

The Clippers were outscored by 28 points in Harden’s 29 minutes, and he was not on the court during the two instances when the Clippers dug themselves out of double-digit deficits.

Just as in Friday’s loss at Dallas, Westbrook started again at point guard, was the first player to go to the bench, and after a short rest returned to the court to lead the team’s bench lineup. Lue didn’t obfuscate the intent behind the move: He wants little overlap between Westbrook’s minutes and those of Harden.

“Just trying to split those guys up as much as possible and let those guys have their own unit,” he said.

In a new rotation change, however, Lue paired Westbrook’s substitutions with starting center Ivica Zubac to give the bench lineup the size it has lacked since backup center Mason Plumlee sprained his left knee one week ago. Plumlee will be re-evaluated in four weeks, the team said.

The results were immediately encouraging. When the Clippers fell behind by 13 early, it was the new second unit featuring Westbrook and Zubac, who checked in with 30 seconds left in the first quarter, and George, who checked in to start the second quarter, that dug the Clippers out of their hole by outscoring Memphis 19-3 to begin the second quarter.

Trailing by 11 points entering the fourth quarter, they found traction again behind a small-ball lineup featuring George and Westbrook, alongside Leonard, Norman Powell and Terance Mann, that outscored Memphis 24-9 to begin the final quarter. Harden went to the bench with 1:20 remaining in the third quarter and stayed there until 1:55 was left in regulation, when Lue then replaced Westbrook with Harden, who immediately made a tying three-pointer.

But the comeback didn’t last and the Clippers’ losing streak continues. The road to their first win since Oct. 31 does not get any easier, with their next game in Denver, where the Clippers have not won since December 2020.

When Lue told Harden he had “free rein” to play like himself Saturday, Harden took that as the signal to “be more aggressive, not just shooting but attacking and getting in the paint and making the right basketball play.”

“We want James to be himself, it's just, again, James is used to having the ball and orchestrating offense and breaking offense down every possession and so I'm sure it is tough when it's not that every possession,” George said. “He's working through that. We're all working through something. We're trying to figure out, again, how to be ourselves when those opportunities present themselves.”

Leonard, who added 14 points, said, “I don't see us all just coming out and scoring whatever, 25-plus points every night, it's only one basketball. We're all trying to figure out just playing off of [Harden], trying to get him in his spots, try to give him his space. I think he's being aggressive when he does get the basketball.”

George scored 26 points, with seven rebounds and seven assists, but had seven turnovers.

“As James stated, losing games ain't what the quest is,” George said. “But honestly we knew it was going to be some sort of growing pain throughout all of this. But it's frustrating just from the standpoint we're not winning.”

Sign up for the L.A. Times SoCal high school sports newsletter to get scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.