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  • Benjamin Gerstel

Harden lights up the Clippers in post holiday victory, 124-108

In Blake Griffin’s homecoming to Los Angeles, the Brooklyn Nets dominated the Clippers. Blake Griffin indulged in nearly eight seasons with the Clippers. During his “Lob City” days, Blake cemented himself as an all-time Clipper. Griffin’s 10,863 points are the second most all-time for the franchise. Clippers legends like Elton Brand, Chris Paul, Danny Manning, or Bob McAdoo don’t even have as much. He also led L.A. to 6 straight playoff appearances, including three trips to the Western Conference Finals.

Both teams entered this game riddled with absences. While Joe Harris continues to recover from an ankle injury, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards, and DayRon Sharpe were all absent for COVID reasons. Brooklyn started off the game with a lineup of James Harden, Patty Mills, Nicholas Claxton, DeAndre Bembry, and Bruce Brown to combat L.A. 's starting five of Eric Bledsoe, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr., and Terrence Mann. Ty Lue found himself with his hands tied around his back, with Kawhi Leonard’s ACL injury suffered in early October, and Paul George’s torn ligament in his right elbow two days ago.

Eric Bledsoe set the tone for Los Angeles in the first quarter. Bledsoe knocked down two early threes, which allowed L.A. to separate themselves from Brooklyn early on. Marcus Morris followed suit, with two more of his own. However, the combination of James Harden and Nicholas Claxton kept Brooklyn within striking distance. After coming off “the most memorable moment of his career” (dunking on LeBron for a potential dunk of the year candidate), Claxton resumed his dominance down low. While the Nets struggled to get going early, Claxton’s aggressiveness allowed them to stay in the game when others couldn’t.

After Claxton kept them in reach, Harden was able to get himself and the rest of the Nets back on track. Harden led all players, with 14 points and five assists, on 3-3 shooting from downtown (in the first quarter). A few of Harden’s highlights included an and-one, where he lost possession of the ball mid-air, and an alley-oop to the former Clipper. Griffin also poured in an inspired performance in the first, garnering a quarter-high five rebounds, with seven points and two assists on top of it.

With most starters starting out in the second (aside from Mills, Bembry, and Morris), the quarter started off slowly for both teams. A three knocked down by Langston Gallaway, and the energy provided by Bruce Brown allowed Brooklyn to maintain their lead. Brown, through his hustle and defense, stole a ball and flushed in the transition dunk. Just a few plays later, he strongly drove to the rack and finished with a sweet finger roll.

After allowing 33 points in the first quarter, Brooklyn stepped up their defense in the second. Defensive plays, like one made by Patty Mills, helped Brooklyn increase their lead. After Patty Mills dove and earned possession of a loose ball, he found the outlet to Harden. Harden then looked up, and saw an open Bembry in transition, with two guys trailing behind him. Despite a thin opening for a pass, Harden was able to utilize backspin on his pass, and found Bembry for the monster jam. Plays like these demoralize opponents, and shift momentum in Brooklyn’s favor. Without the defensive plays made by Brooklyn, one of the biggest highlights of the game would’ve never happened.

Defensively, in the second quarter, L.A. essentially collapsed on itself. The Nets got inside whenever they wanted to, via Harden’s famous ball-freeze move, and the way he commands attention on offense. By freezing the ball before he makes a decision, he also freezes the defense by forcing them to watch him. While they remain frozen, this allows time for Harden to analyze open lanes or players. As a result, he can make the best decision possible at that moment. This allows him to easily pin passes, like one possession, where he split the top of L.A.’s two-three zone and found the open man. Harden’s ability and attention he drew proved too much for L.A. in the second quarter. By halftime, Brooklyn’s five point first-quarter lead was converted into a 16-point lead.

The third quarter was much of the same, with Harden doing anything he wanted to on the floor. Harden delivered his tenth dime before the quarter was over, involving Bruce Brown, Patty Mills, and DeAndre Bembry. Brown sliced in the lane for his staple 12-foot floater, Patty Mills cashed in on a couple three-pointers, and Bembry found himself open for a layup. Harden finished off the quarter with a signature alley-oop to Claxton, after a swift behind-the-back pass by the Australian. He also had one of the nicest euro-steps you’ll ever see a bit after. By the third quarter, it was clear Harden was unguardable.

To his credit, Marcus Morris was a one-man well-oiled machine in front of his home crowd. He fought and inspired his team to not give up, despite the lead. He scored from every level of the floor, including deep, the line, and field goals. Morris had 24-6-5 after the third buzzer. Other guys like Ivica Zubac, who rebounded well, and Eric Bledsoe, who poured in 13 points (3-6 downtown), deserve their due as well. However, the Nets were simply too much for LAC. Brooklyn scored 62 points in the paint (in three quarters), and dropped over 100 points by the end of the third. They dominated on all ends of the floor tonight, while shooting over 22% better from the field. Brooklyn certainly proved to be the number one seed they are tonight. Without Kawhi and PG, L.A. never really stood a chance.

A six point run by B.J. Boston (including a four-point play) kept the Clippers in the game all of a sudden in the fourth. What once was a 20-point Brooklyn lead eventually withered down to a manageable 13-point one. Brooklyn really struggled, until a James Harden and-one with less than six minutes left. Keon Johnson knocked down a three, bringing it to a ten point game with less than four minutes left. However, immediately after, James Harden responded with a four point play over Johnson. With 3:08 left, James Harden earned his 15th assist of the game, after Patty Mills drilled the open three. This brought the Nets to a 17-point lead, and essentially was the dagger.

With his fifteenth assist, Harden registered his 13th career game with 30+15. He’s only the fourth Nets player in history to do so. Harden played like the MVP talent we know he is, and the Nets showed why they are the best team in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn expanded to 19-0 when scoring over 108 points, and won the game 124-108. Behind the leadership of James Harden, and contributions from Claxton, Mills, Griffin and other guys, Brooklyn leaves L.A. 2-0 and 23-9 on the season. LAC is now below .500, at 17-18.

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