As Clippers clinch surprising playoff berth, relentless Montrezl Harrell perfectly exemplifies the team's new culture
Harrell has had a breakout season for a Clippers team that thrives despite not having a true superstar
A couple months prior, Harrell was part of an enormous seven-player haul that president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank secured in exchange for Chris Paul. When Frank informed Doc Rivers and his coaching staff of the trade, they wondered which of those players should even get invited to training camp. Harrell, then a 23-year-old bit player, was one of those players they debated. Was he even good enough to warrant a training camp invite? They decided to bring him in. Why not? If anything, they could tell from his time with the Houston Rockets that he was a high-energy player.
"In training camp we realized he could score," Rivers recalled. "He had never scored. Didn't score at Houston, didn't score at Louisville a lot. And in practice he kept scoring on guys. And we kept questioning ourselves: 'Are our guys bad? Or can this guy score?' And then he started doing it in games, and that's what kind of opened all our eyes."
Less than two years later, on Tuesday night, Rivers walked out of a raucous visitors' locker room in Minneapolis after a 122-111 win over the Timberwolves. His shirt was soaked in champagne.
"God dang it!" Rivers yelled. "I gotta wash my shirt."
He'd avoided a direct hit from the bottle of Danilo Gallinari, but still got hit from the spray that was celebrating this team's unlikely playoff berth. A team that had been projected to win 33 or 35 games in the preseason -- a team that everyone presumed was heading for the tank when they shipped off Tobias Harris at the trade deadline -- had just won their 45th game, and their 11th of the past 12. They sit in fifth in the West, only two games back of getting a home playoff series, a 5-2 finish away from a 50-win season, which would be one of the more unlikely 50-win seasons in a long while. In the corner of the locker room, as reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams said he was going to go celebrate with some tequila, sat Harrell, hit feet in a bucket of ice water.
As much as any single player, it's been this breakout season from the energetic 25-year-old power forward that's made these Clippers the only team without an All-Star to have clinched a playoff berth.
"Before the year we went through all the articles about us and how bad we were going to be," Rivers said. "And I just told them, 'They don't know us. They really don't.' You never know why a team buys into what you're doing, but this team did. Our goal this year was every night after the game, the other team says, 'Man, that team plays hard.' "
No Clipper exemplifies that more than Harrell. When he was a freshman on the 2013 national title-winning Louisville Cardinals team, he came with that same sort of competitive fire.
"He wasn't strong at first, to dunk and finish, but now he's got the body too," said Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng, a Louisville teammate of Harrell's. "He played the same way in college. He just got a lot better. His mindset never changed. That's him. That's how he practiced, that's how he plays."
His first couple years in the NBA, Harrell was a bit player for the Houston Rockets. As a second-round pick, he spent quite of few stints with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G League (then known as the National Basketball Development League). When he was with the big club, he averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game. His second season in the league he played more, averaging 18.3 minutes and 9.1 points coming off the bench, but didn't have anywhere near the impact he's having for these Clippers.
"What we liked about him in Houston was that every time he did play, he was one of those guys that just made something happen," Rivers said. "It could have been good or bad. But he made stuff happen."
In the summer of 2017, Harrell was a piece of an enormous trade. The Rockets got Paul. The Clippers got the kitchen sink: Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Williams, Sam Dekker, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins and Kyle Wiltjer. The trade set the foundation for what would become the Clippers culture: Being unafraid to trade away star players (Blake Griffin to Detroit, Tobias Harris to Philadelphia) for role players who fit into their system, and into their big plans for the future. They became a team without a traditional superstar, but with a team-focused tone that Harrell has exemplified. Rivers was impressed right away in that first training camp.
"Last year he was really good as well -- it just took some coach 20 games to figure he can play," Rivers said. "And then when I figured it out, he's played well ever since. He plays at a great pace. He gives us energy, gives us toughness, does the dirty work -- just does a lot of things for your basketball team."
"He's growing," added Williams, a teammate of Harrell's since their time in Houston. "He hasn't stayed the same in his career. He's been better and better every year, and this year's been his coming-out party."
Ask Harrell about his breakout season -- he's averaging 16.6 points per game, more than he averaged in any of his three years in college, to go with 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks -- and he explains it pretty simply: He just needed the opportunity.
"That's what it is -- I got a bigger opportunity," Harrell said. "I wake up every day, Monday through Sunday, and I get to lace up my shoes and play the game of basketball and be able to call it my job. Everybody's got different jobs. Some people hate their jobs. I'm fortunate enough and blessed enough to play the game that I love. I'm able to take a game and call it my everyday job.
"That's all I can do. I just came out and competed, did all the little things and did all the right things. Things that show up in the stat sheet. Blocking shots. Loose balls. Diving on the floor. Saving loose balls. Finishing possessions. I did all the little things. I just put myself in the position to be on the floor, and that's all I really needed."
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