LOS ANGELES – After a side-step three-pointer that just beat the shot clock, James Harden sat near the half-court logo and shook his head in delight as the Crypto.com Arena crowd cheered.
Harden not only scored his biggest shot as L.A. Clipper, he won his first game with his new team with some vintage punches in crunch time. He delivered his best game as a Clipper with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, helping LA to a 106-100 victory over the Houston Rockets.
The Clippers (4-7) ended a six-game losing streak by scoring 12 of their last 13 points and rallying from a 99-94 deficit with 2:15 to play.
The win was huge considering the Clippers had lost five straight when Harden was on the floor. More important than the win, however, was Harden feeling more like himself with each game after not participating in training camp or preseason training before the move.
Harden finished 8 of 11 from the field and also scored Ivica Zubac twice at the rim for two big baskets in the comeback. In addition to hitting the game’s highest shot, he made late plays with his playmaking and ballhandling.
“I’m getting pretty close,” Harden said. “I’m getting closer every game and I feel like I’m improving.”
This was a glimpse of what the Clippers can do with Harden. Their three big scorers all had moments where they took control of the game. Kawhi Leonard recovered from a minor slump and scored 26 points, eight rebounds and five steals. Paul George had 23 points, eight rebounds and a huge block late in the game.
The Clippers also got their first win after a major roster change. Russell Westbrook came from the bench as the sixth man for the first time as a Clipper. Head coach Ty Lue said Westbrook approached him with the idea of helping the team overcome its decline. Westbrook, Harden, George, Leonard and Zubac started the first five games of Harden’s Clippers tenure, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, those four stars had surpassed 20 points in their 76 minutes together entering Friday’s game.
Westbrook, who left Friday night without speaking to reporters, finished the game with eight points, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes, his fewest since joining the Clippers before the All-Star break last season.
“He wanted to do what [is] “An ultimate sacrifice for a man of his caliber,” Lue said. “For the things he’s done in this league, the things he’s done for this team.” So kudos to Russ for wanting to do that. Just sacrificing the desire to win at a high level is a big part of what we talked about.”
George, who advocated for the Clippers to sign his former Oklahoma City teammate last season, acknowledged Westbrook’s sacrifice.
“His energy is tough and there’s obviously a lot of chemistry there,” George said. “We’ve always played well against each other, but it’s just a credit to him for his sacrifices and what he’s done for us in the future so we can try new things. I can’t say enough about Russ’ character and his leadership alone.”
Harden also understood what Westbrook was doing with this move.
“Russ made sacrifices for the team and I know it was a difficult decision,” Harden said. “Of course he wants to start, but he sacrifices for the team. All in all, it will pay off better for us.”
“So just continue to make sure everyone on this squad plays well and we find our swag, our rhythm as a unit and individually as a team.”
George liked what he saw and how he, Harden and Leonard had their moments and the potential for the future.
“I think it’s just a great balance,” George said. “Honestly, when we go in spurts and everyone puts their stamp on the game, it’s difficult to keep up with us. And I think we’ve shown that once again, glimpses of what it means when we’re connected and we just get the job done.”