For most of Friday, the noise around the Clippers stemmed from the news that Russell Westbrook was no longer a starter.
By night’s end, the bigger change was that the Clippers finally showed that they could finish.
Mired in a six-game losing streak and 0-5 this season in close games, the Clippers held Houston to one point over the last 2 minutes 16 seconds as part of a 12-1 run to close a 106-100 victory that ended the team’s nightmare streak that had left them 0-for-November.
For his first time in six games in a Clippers uniform, James Harden played the hero. With 21 seconds to play and the score tied at 100, the Clippers (4-7) drew up a play for Kawhi Leonard to isolate his defender. But when his probing dribble found little room against Jabari Smith, Leonard passed to Harden at the top of the three-point arc with 10 seconds left. Harden took two dribbles, stepped back into a signature three-pointer and made the shot while being fouled by Jae’Sean Tate. The four points were his only points of the fourth quarter — but they broke the tie, snapped the streak and, 18 days after he was acquired from Philadelphia, produced the kind of moment the Clippers had envisioned.
“Y’all know how good he is,” said Leonard, whose 26 points and five steals were a team high.
It was the Clippers’ first victory this season during a game within five points in the last five minutes, it snapped Houston’s six game winning streak and temporarily relieved some of the stress felt within the Clipper organization in recent days as the losses and questions about the fit of the roster’s headlining pieces piled up.
“We still got a long way to go,” said Harden, who scored 24 points, with nine rebounds and seven assists and, after three first-quarter turnovers, didn’t commit another turnover in his final 24 minutes. “But obviously, it felt good to get a win.”
The game will be remembered for more than the win.
For the first time in 37 games since Westbrook signed with the Clippers in February, the 35-year-old point guard and former NBA most valuable player came off the bench while playing 17 minutes, his fewest since Jan. 2, when he logged 11 minutes while still a Laker. Terance Mann, who was named a starter in preseason before injuring an ankle, was inserted in his place because the team felt he was a better option to guard point guards, said coach Tyronn Lue, who said he also considered starting P.J. Tucker.
Westbrook, who declined to speak with reporters after the game, was welcomed warmly with applause when he — along with Norman Powell and new backup center Daniel Theis, who cleared waivers and signed with the team only hours earlier — entered the game for the first time with 4:39 remaining in the opening quarter.
Westbrook’s three-pointer with 10:20 left in the fourth quarter brought the Clippers from down two points to leading by one, which Leonard called “big.”
“I think he’s gonna be good,” Leonard said. “You know, it’s gonna take time for us all to figure it out. But I think he did well.”
In recent games, Lue made Westbrook his first substitute to quickly bring him back in the game and play alongside bench units, with Lue saying he felt both he and Harden would benefit from running their own units. For the starting offense, the move streamlined the question of who the offense will flow through on most possessions, Harden said.
“I know it was a tough decision,” Harden said. “Obviously he wants to start, but him sacrificing for the team all in all is going to pay off better for us.”
Some within the team believed a change to the lineup was already under consideration Wednesday, but as The Times reported earlier Friday, and Lue confirmed before tipoff, Westbrook had broached the possibility himself by sending Lue a text message Wednesday evening saying he was open to a role change if it would help. Lue asked to discuss it face-to-face the next day, a meeting that ran long enough that Clippers assistant coaches had to begin practice in Lue’s place.
Teammates did not know the starting lineup had changed until Westbrook walked onto the practice court donning a white practice jersey, the color worn by reserves.
“We just got to get him used to it and get him accustomed to doing that, and it’s tough, it’s tough to go from starting to off the bench or from off the bench to starting, especially with the caliber player that he is,” Lue said. “So we just got to get him comfortable, make sure we got the right guys on the floor with him.”
It is the second time in as many seasons Westbrook has played off the bench after doing the same with the Lakers to begin last season.
“It’s tough, with his energy and obviously there’s a ton of chemistry there,” said Paul George, who scored 23 points, lobbied for the team to sign Westbrook last season and remains one of his teammates’s most ardent supporters. “We’ve always played well off one another, but just takes a lot for his sacrifice and what he did for us going forward to try things, new things out. Can’t say enough just on the character of Russ and man, just his leadership.”
For all of the discussion caused by the change in lineup, it wasn’t even the one used by Lue down the stretch of the fourth quarter. Instead, Lue played four of the starters but inserted Norman Powell over Mann with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and stuck with it for the next five minutes. He stuck with it during a more than three-minute stretch in which the Clippers missed eight consecutive shots, including four by Leonard, the team only remaining close behind a defense that held the Rockets scoreless for two minutes. Powell scored 10 points.
The win might have had to do with the new-look lineups. But it also had to do with the Clippers fixing familiar problems. After 10 turnovers and six assists before halftime, they turned it over only four times in the second half while adding 16 assists. A defense that was often porous in late-game situations finally tightened.
The lineup change is here to stay. Whether their winning ways are, too, is still to be determined.
“You got to be able to bury the teams when we go up 10 and make it a close game coming from behind, and it’s just on the players,” Leonard said. “You go only get coached so much until that light switches in your head or it never does and then you see the teams fail. So we got to figure out who we want to be.”