NEW YORK — Sacrificing four of the LA Clippers’ stars has its limits as they must collectively win.
Maybe they didn’t know it or didn’t realize it yet, but it took their coach about 24 game minutes to realize that among the smorgasbord of veteran NBA stars in his starting lineup, he was the star who had to sacrifice the least amount of shots he could take. Kawhi Leonard is.
“He’s a great player, so, yeah,” Lue said after James Harden’s first game, a 111-97 loss to the Knicks.
The Clippers led New York 46-42 at halftime, but Leonard had only made six shots. In those same two quarters, Harden attempted five shots (in the second quarter), Paul George took seven (and missed six) and Russell Westbrook was 5-for-7.
For the first time, it seemed like an even distribution for four players with accomplishments and star status longer than Harden’s beard.
Westbrook, like Harden, is a former NBA MVP and multiple-time scoring champion. Leonard has two Finals MVPs. George is not as decorated as the others, but is often spoken of as having the ability to carry a team.
Coaching in the big leagues isn’t fair, necessarily, and at halftime of his first game with Harden running the Clippers, Lue interrupted the flow of what he saw to urge Leonard to get the ball more often. Kawhi hit nine shots in the third quarter alone.
It wouldn’t even be significant to understand that every night would add up, if not for all the Clippers talking about the need to share the 5 1/2 days between this game and the completion of the trade. Someone else’s turn as the featured scorer. And, at the time, Harden said “I’m not a system player, I’m a system,” referring to playing wingman alongside Joel Embiid in Philidelphia’s Doc Rivers direction.
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“I mean, everybody has to make sacrifices, but in a match with Saffron, I thought we could attack a little bit more instead of spreading it out like we did,” Lue explained. “I thought, getting him in a rhythm would help us offensively, and it did. So we knew we had to make sure we kept everybody involved … Russ and James have led the league in assists the last four or five years. So by them setting those guys up, we We can also make a play to make sure we’re in the right spots, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.
Lue is correct that Harden led the NBA in assists last season with a 10.7 percentage for the 76ers. Westbrook last led the association with 11.7 assists in 2021 when he was with the Washington Wizards. That was two teams ago, but the point still stands. Both players, while dynamic scorers, have spent considerable time getting the ball into the hands of talented teammates.
Strictly speaking, Leonard’s expanded role in the offense against the Knicks didn’t help the Clippers, as a third halftime lead evaporated thanks to a brutal fourth quarter in which nobody played well.
Leonard’s career-high scoring average came in 2019-20, his first season with the Clippers, when he averaged 27.1 points. His dominance at that end is on display more in the playoffs, when the pace slows down and Leonard can (and does) dictate the pace at which both teams play because the offense runs off him. If he stays healthy for the rest of the year — given his track record — the postseason Clippers could be headed that way. So it makes sense to practice a Leonard-centric approach now.
Leonard probably knew the sensitivity of the situation, in which — despite what everyone else said — egos had to be massaged with four ball-dominant players at once, he said later. Mix it up in the first half against the Knicks.
“No, it will be,” said Leonard. “We have guys who can hit the ball. I won’t be the only one. I have to be ready when my chance comes.
Harden and Westbrook each finished with 17 points and 10 assists between them, and Harden only needed nine shots to get there. George never found a rhythm and shot 2-for-11, but he had his chances.
Asked if Harden caught himself thinking Leonard should take another shot, he said: “I mean, obviously, D. Lue does a great job of that.
“But for me, I think especially when I’m in the pick-and-roll, whoever’s open, I have to create and create the best shot available,” Harden said. “So, I’m not really worried about that. Obviously, if it happens to somebody, we want to take that person and move on. But if not, pick-and-roll, make the best shot available to a team and get more good shots during the game without turning the basketball over.” , we’ll be very efficient, so I’m excited for the journey.”
Harden, “The System,” may be ready to roll with the Clippers, but it’s worth keeping an eye on how he feels if he has more nights where Lue violates the flow of the game to get the ball in Leonard’s hands. He then justifies the decision by calling Leonard the best player on the team.
(Photo of Kawhi Leonard: Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)