Basketball

Helene Elliott: Clippers must rise to Harrell’s level

SAN FRANCISCO – Montrezl Harrell's teammates were drifting out to the practice court Sunday afternoon and chatting as they warmed up, but Harrell sat on the floor for a long while, wearing his headphones while he rested his back against the wall at the University of San Francisco's War Memorial Gymnasium. It was a rare quiet moment for the man whose energy has fueled the Clippers' second unit to remarkable heights.

Harrell led the Clippers in Saturday's playoff opener by scoring 26 points in their 121-104 loss to Golden State, a performance that was efficient – he hit 11 of 15 shots – and assertive. With their starters outscored by Golden State's Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry by a staggering 99-39, the Clippers needed every bit of offense Harrell and fellow reserve Lou Williams could muster. Both stepped up and met that responsibility, as they've done so often. Not enough of their teammates followed their lead for the Clippers to cause the defending champion Warriors serious worry.

"Offensively he played great. I thought defensively, he could do some things," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Harrell. "But offensively he was fantastic. He's a matchup we can go to in this series, for sure."

Unlike Williams, who had been in 52 playoff games, Harrell's postseason experience was limited to seven games with Houston in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and he averaged 1.1 points per game over 33 minutes. He played 30 minutes Saturday and was especially forceful in the second quarter, when he scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds, and blocked a shot to keep the Clippers close.

"He's been bringing that energy every game, and we know he can bring that every night," starting forward Danilo Gallinari said. "And he's great because he gives us a lot of confidence. He's been great for us throughout the whole season."

Still, Harrell's feats couldn't prevent the Warriors from turning a 13-point halftime lead into a commanding 19-point gap after three quarters. To Harrell, everything started sliding downhill when the Clippers lost their focus.

"They got free on a couple open threes and they took away a lot from our defensive mentality. I think midway through that third quarter is where we kind of lost our composure and they kind of started hitting some shots," he said afterward. "Even though we were still right there in the game, 13-point game, it's trying to pull them out of that mojo they're already in.

"We can't worry about the refs. We can't worry about the calls. We can't worry about the little antics that are going on in between the games. We have to stay locked in for a full 48-minute game."

Harrell drew praise from Green, though they've been in each other's faces a lot. "I respect a guy who gets it out the mud, and he's gotten it out the mud," Green said, using a phrase urbandictionary.com defines as describing a person who has reached a comfortable level of success on his own.

"No one expects Montrezl to be in this league who he is today, and yet he's put the work in that he's needed to put in and he'll be in this league for a long time. Most importantly, I respect that," Green said. "He's a hustle guy. He's getting stuff: dives to the rim, probably one of the best rollers in the league out of a pick-and-roll. He's super physical. He finishes great around the rim. He came up with some offensive rebounds and finishes. And even I think one of the things that's underrated about him is his hands. You know, some of those balls where we should probably be going another way, he get his hands on it and he's coming out with it. I think that's one of the things not many people really talk about, is how he has great hands. He gets near the ball, he usually comes up with it. It was a good night for him. We've got to do a better job on him."

Harrell appeared to injure his right hand late in the second quarter after being fouled by Green, and Harrell badly missed his first free throw before making the second for the last of his 22 first-half points. He wore a covering on his hand Sunday but the Clippers reported no injuries in advance of Game 2 on Monday night at Oracle Arena.

Upsetting the Warriors was the longest of longshots coming into this, but the Clippers might not win a game unless they rekindle the scrappy spirit that defined them most of the season. The first step is to stay composed, not get distracted by the officiating again, and limit the Warriors' runs.

"Push the ball right back down their throats, push it right back at them," Harrell said. "They have to defend us on the other end of the floor, too, so when they do make those runs, we can't get all in ourselves and figure out what happened in that play right then and there. No, get the ball out, push it back up the floor and run our offense and get back at them. That's all we can do."

That still might not be good enough to win. But retaining their self-respect demands that they match Harrell's fire and energy and at least know they did all they could.

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