LOS ANGELES — Even severely short-handed with seven players in health and safety protocols, the Brooklyn Nets made it look easy.
The Clippers, similarly undermanned, made it look anything but in a 124-108 loss before 17,128 fans at Crypto.com Arena.
Because, well, defending James Harden is hard.
Inspired by a return home to L.A. and refreshed in his second game back after missing the four games, including three in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the nine-time All-Star and three-time NBA scoring champ controlled the narrative Monday, performing at his confounding best.
“Everything we did, he picked us apart,” Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said. “So we blitzed him, we switched and guarded him, we switched to fire, we zoned him, and he picked us apart. Everything we did, they had to answer for it.”
A former Artesia High School standout who was honored at a jersey retirement ceremony on Sunday, Harden finished with 39 points, a season-high 15 assists and eight rebounds on Monday.
“High school is where I actually fell in love with learning how to work hard, learning how to actually train, learning how to stay in the gym and lock myself in the gym and find things that I can get better at in basketball,” Harden told reporters postgame.
“From just hooping with the homies outside in high school, finding pick-up games around the city, all that stuff man. That was where I fell in love with the game of basketball and it’s introduced me to a lot of different people, and it took me to a higher place to where I’m able to provide for my family, and a lot of people around the world. So that was a special moment for me yesterday and I definitely embraced that.”
When he clocked in at the office the next day, he got to work alternately slicing through the Clippers’ defense for layups or carving them up with passes to set up scores for his teammates – many of them coming at close range: Brooklyn’s 74 points in the paint against the Clippers equaled the most by an opponent this season against Tyronn Lue’s squad.
His stat line included a notable milestone: His 10th assist was No. 6,000 for his career, making the Nets’ only available superstar Monday the 10th player in NBA history with 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 6,000 assists.
With the 2017-18 league MVP behind the wheel, the Nets peeled off the starting line, taking a 71-55 lead into halftime, their highest-scoring half and their largest halftime lead on the road this season.
Naturally, Harden’s fingerprints were on 39 of the Nets’ first-half points; he personally tallied 22 first-half points (his third-most in a half this season) and eight assists.
The Nets (23-9) came swaggering into Crypto.com Arena having beaten the Lakers there on Christmas, 122-115, boasting the Eastern Conference’s best record and an impressive 12-3 road record – and having won five of their past six games despite having a substantial part of their cast stuck in COVID-19 health and safety protocols (including five players Monday).
The Clippers – who were down eight players, including their stars Kawhi Leonard (ACL) and Paul George (elbow) – didn’t have the wind at their backs in quite the same way.
Playing their second game in as many nights, Lue’s team lost for the fourth time in five games.
The Clippers (17-17) were hoping to build on the positives of Sunday’s 103-100 loss to Denver, when their young players impressed with hustle and defense.
Those young players delivered similarly Monday, spurred by Keon Johnsons’ 12 fourth-quarter points, the Clippers outscored Brooklyn 27-23 in the final frame to cut what was a 22-point lead to 110-100 – on a Johnson 3-pointer with 4:17 to play.
Harden said hello to the rookie Johnson the next time down the court by hitting a 3 over him and drawing a foul, falling into the Clippers’ bench as the ball fell through the hoop.
Lue challenged the call, but to no avail, and Harden stepped to the line and knocked down his fifth free throw to bump Brooklyn’s lead to 114-100.
Johnson was summarily impressed by his first up-close-and-personal look at Harden.
“Just the way he’s able to draw contact and get the ball up out of his hands quick,” said Johnson, the rookie guard who tallied a career-best 15 points. “He’s got great handles, his IQ is absurd, through the roof, just seeing it live and in action today, it was a great feeling.”
Another silver lining in the loss: The welcome return of Marcus Morris Sr., the veteran forward who returned after missing eight days and four games in health and safety protocols.
He picked up where he left off, with another 20-plus point game – his sixth in eight outings, dating back to Dec. 3. He finished with 24 points, six assists and five rebounds, logging all 27 of his minutes in the first three quarters before giving way to the Clippers’ youngsters.
The kids closing out the game on the court included Xavier Moon, who was called up Sunday on a 10-day hardship contract to fill in for Reggie Jackson, one of three Clippers currently in protocols.
In his first 12 NBA minutes, the speedy 6-foot-2 guard scored two points and recorded a rebound and an assist.
Eric Bledsoe, starting at point guard with Reggie Jackson in protocols, finished with 15 points and six assists. And Luke Kennard gave the Clippers 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting (and 3 for 6 from the free-throw line, those three misses equaling a career high through his 260-game NBA career).
“I don’t miss too many free throws, so that was kind of a surprise, but it happens, I guess,” said Kennard, who missed the Clippers’ win in Sacramento last week with a sore hip, something he said isn’t 100% but isn’t troubling him enough to keep him sidelined.
“I mean, jeez, that just kind of tells you, you miss the one game and it can kind of throw off a rhythm a little bit, so it’s all good, I mean move on to the next one, just continue to trust in my routine, everything I do. Should be all right.”
Former Clipper star Blake Griffin finished with 12 points for Brooklyn, who also got 18 points from Patty Mills, 16 from Nic Claxton and 12 from DeAndre’ Bembry.