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    Clippers had belief, and now their potential appears limitless
    • January 23, 2024

    PLAYA VISTA — Tyronn Lue wanted to imagine the possibilities. Victories – lots of them, extended playoff runs and maybe even a championship. There would be no stopping the Clippers with newly acquired superstar James Harden.

    “I tried to,” Lue said, before laughing at the memory.

    Instead, reality stepped in before Lue and the Clippers could bask in the afterglow of lining up Harden alongside Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Their first game together showed a dispirited and disjointed team, resulting in a loss.

    Then another. And another and another two followed, throwing cold water on any dreams of instant success.

    “We got off to a rough start, but I did think we had a chance to be a good team, you know,” Lue said. “(We needed) to sacrifice first with our four guys and then just understand how to play with each other.”

    Once the Big Four learned each other’s intricacies and needs, combined with a heavy dose of personal sacrifice, the Clippers began winning. Westbrook went to the bench, leaving Harden as the team’s primary ball handler. George moved to a new role playing off the ball and Leonard settled for fewer touches.

    Now, at the halfway point of the season, the retooled Clippers own a 27-14 record, one that has included winning streaks of nine and five games. They have won 10 of their past 12 and 24 of 31 since their 3-7 start. They sit in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, 2½ games out of first, and they speak with the confidence that they can win every game.

    As proof, the Clippers have beaten some of the top teams in the league and won games in various ways with different players starring every night. For example, there was Harden’s four-point play with six seconds left to beat the Houston Rockets, Leonard’s 41 points against the Utah Jazz and George’s game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds to secure a one-point victory over the Golden State Warriors.

    Then there was Westbrook’s inspiring performance off the bench on Sunday afternoon, providing a spark that helped fuel a 22-0 run in the final five minutes to close out a 125-114 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

    “We’re just finding ways to win, and whoever it takes to win,” Lue said. “We got a lot of different ways that we can win and beat you. And like I said, PG and Kawhi didn’t have it going tonight, so James had it going, Russ had it going. And they were willing and OK to play through those guys. It wasn’t a problem.

    “When you have guys that want to sacrifice like that, it means a lot to the team. And that means you’re establishing a winning culture.”

    The Clippers look to take that confidence into Tuesday night’s revenge game against the Lakers (22-22), who have beaten them twice this season. The Clippers had beaten the Lakers 11 times in a row before their cross-arena rival defeated them the night before Harden’s debut.

    The Clippers have been in this position before. In the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, they were 23-12 midway through and ended up reaching the Western Conference finals. Without Leonard, who had gotten hurt in the previous round, the Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games.

    This season, both George and Leonard are healthy, although Leonard missed four games because of a bruised hip.

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    “When we first made the deal, we believed right away that we would be good,” Harden said.

    Harden never doubted how well he would fit into the Clippers’ plans. It’s the main reason why he demanded a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Clippers.

    “Obviously it didn’t start off well,” Harden said. “It gave people so much to talk about in a negative way and now those people that were talking are nowhere to be found. Like, literally nowhere to be found.”

    George was among those who believed right away.

    “We just didn’t know if it would work or how it was going to work, but we knew we had to figure it out,” he said. “All along, we knew we would be a good team.”

    A team that now can imagine a potential championship future.

    ​ Orange County Register