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On Wednesday night, one month and 11 games into their up-and-down experiment of incorporating four future Hall of Famers on one roster, the Clippers proved that the elusive can be done. Their starting wing trio of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden can, in fact, all find their offensive rhythm on the same night. Their offense can operate cleanly. And instead of raising questions, they can produce a commanding performance befitting their lofty ambitions.
Wednesday’s 131-117 victory against Sacramento at Golden 1 Center was their first win on the road in four chances against an opponent with a winning percentage of .500 or better.
The Clippers (8-9) set season bests for a first half in points (72), three-pointers (11) and fewest turnovers (one) while leading by as many as 22 points.
Leonard scored 34 points, Harden had 26 and Paul George added 19. Every starter scored in double figures, with Ivica Zubac scoring 14 and Terance Mann 18.
Yes, it came against an opponent playing its second game in as many nights. But so was Denver on Monday, when the short-handed Nuggets stunned the full-strength Clippers anyway. The sting lingered, so much so that Wednesday morning, coach Tyronn Lue still was stewing over what he termed “elementary” defensive mistakes during “that bulls— game,” and wondered how the team could coax Harden, a former league scoring leader, to be more aggressive, after he averaged just 1.5 field goal attempts in fourth quarters as a Clipper.
“We have a selfless team,” Lue said before tipoff. “They’re not saying, ‘Oh, he’s taking too many shots. I’m not getting those shots.’ But they got to be aggressive in their own rights of doing what you do well. And we have four special guys and they all bring something different. They’re all better and unique in certain situations than the other guy is, and so we got to be able to use those talents.”
While Lue implored Harden that “we need him to be more aggressive,” he also described the “fine line about keeping other guys in the rhythm, but also letting him be able to play pick and rolls and make plays as well.”
Hours later, they found that balance. Harden scored 17 points in the first quarter, a total that would have tied for his third-highest-scoring game this season.
In the second quarter it was George, as he scored 11 points, and Leonard, who added 12.
When the Kings (10-7) punished Clippers reserves and cut their 23-point deficit in the fourth quarter to 13 with six minutes remaining, it called to mind the way the Clippers frittered away 11-point leads three times Monday. Lue, who has criticized his players’ professionalism at times not putting away opponents when given the chance, reinserted his starters and the lead never reached single digits.
It was the type of performance that showed the depth of their talent and illustrated why the front office made the trade for Harden so early, hoping the team could work out the kinks early in the season. Lue said he didn’t have another team to reference as a guide for integrating so many All-Star talents who share the same position, noting that most superstar-laden teams of the last two decades usually included a star big man who bore the brunt of the offensive sacrifice.
The night’s only blemish was a knee injury that sent reserve guard Norman Powell to the locker room in the fourth quarter after he was run into.