NEW YORK -- The Los Angeles Clippers had four days off before James Harden's season debut at Madison Square Garden, but it wasn't exactly a mini-camp. Leading up to Monday's game, Harden scrimmaged with some new teammates, though Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Ivica Zubac were not among them. The first time that group played 5-on-5 was the opening possession against the New York Knicks, and, on plenty of occasions, it looked like it.
Early in the third quarter, Harden ran a pick-and-roll with Zubac, threw a lob that sailed out of bounds and immediately turned around and raised his hand to take the blame. A few minutes later, Leonard and Harden both turned down clean catch-and-shoot 3s on the same possession. The Clippers committed 22 turnovers in the 111-97 loss, and those turnovers led to 35 Knicks points.
On other occasions, though, it was easy to see Los Angeles' vision. Early on, Harden threw a bounce pass through Mitchell Robinson's legs, leading to two free throws for Zubac. He made a stepback 3 in the second quarter, made a floater in isolation against Donte DiVinenzo in the third and created a corner 3 opportunity for Leonard in the fourth. Harden, playing in his first NBA game since mid-May, finished with 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting in 31 minutes to go along with six assists.
"It felt kid of weird out there," Harden said, 130 days after opting into the final year of his contract and requesting a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. "But just not really having a preseason game or an opportunity to participate in a full training camp or none of that, I was just out there just basically winging it."
Harden said that he was tired in the first couple of minutes and that there was "a lot going on through my mind." He also said, though, that it "felt good" to be back on the court and he is "excited about the journey." On sharing the floor with Leonard, George and Westbrook, Harden said he sees "unlimited possibilities."
It is notable that those four, along with Zubac, were on the floor at the beginning of the game and in the final competitive portion of it -- Tyronn Lue pulled the regulars with more than four minutes remaining. Even with Terance Mann out of the lineup, the Clippers could have decided to use Westbrook as a sixth man, with P.J. Tucker or Norman Powell -- more natural fits next to high-usage players -- in the first five. Since last week's trade, Lue has repeatedly said that it's up to him to make sure that everybody is engaged and in rhythm. Leonard didn't run his first pick-and-roll until almost halfway through the first quarter, and George finished with a season-low 10 points on a season-low 11 field goal attempts.
"It's going to be a process," Lue said. "And I love the process we gotta go through to get to where we want to get to, and we're going to get there for sure. But just trying to keep everybody in rhythm, with four dynamic scorers, it's tough."
Lue said that he will "make some adjustments" to the rotation. One of them, however, might have nothing to do with keeping the stars comfortable: Backup center Mason Plumlee left the game late in the third quarter when Knicks forward Julius Randle dove into his left knee going for a loose ball. Plumlee had to be carried off the court and did not return; the Clippers are calling the injury a knee sprain.
Without Plumlee, the Clippers called on second-year big man Moussa Diabate at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The game was tied at that point, but then New York built a 16-point lead by scoring on the first 10 possessions of the final frame. If Plumlee's injury is anywhere near as bad as it looked, then they'll likely need to play more smallball.
Lue said it would take him 10 games to get used to his new group and "understand what I need to do." When Leonard finished the first half with only four points, Lue emphasized getting him more involved. The Clippers opened the third quarter with a set play that produced a Leonard dunk off of a cut. Later, Harden screened for Leonard, the Knicks switched it and Leonard bullied Quentin Grimes for a bucket.
"I thought just getting him into a rhythm would help us out offensively, and it did," Lue explained. "We just gotta make sure we just keep everybody engaged, as well as [Paul George] offensively as well." Lue then praised Harden and Westbrook's passing ability saying, "I don't think it'll be a problem at all."
The starting lineup was -13 in 19 minutes, and Lue said that the Clippers need to get familiar with each other, but they were undone by turnovers and rebounds (New York had a 44.7% offensive rebounding rate), problems that predated Harden's arrival. Leonard and George both praised Harden for getting others involved, and Leonard downplayed the difficulty of adjusting to Harden's presence: "He's coming off a pick-and-roll and he can make plays, and you're usually open, so be ready to shoot the ball. Simple."
In Game 1, this iteration of the Clippers did not have much ball movement in the halfcourt, nor did they put much pressure on the rim. There are many questions about how the stars can complement each other, how Lue should stagger them and what lineups they should lean on in crunch time. For a team that fell apart in the fourth quarter, though, they sounded awfully confident about answering them -- in time.
"We'll figure it out," George remarked. "First game. A lot of moving pieces. But it was fun. Honestly being on the court and playing with those guys tonight was fun. And a lot of optimism going forward."