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Harden has 17 in debut, but Clippers fall to Knicks after starting their four stars together

At times, such as when James Harden raced up the floor and found a cutting Kawhi Leonard for a layup, it was easy to see why the Clippers’ new four-star system can be so potent.

“Unlimited possibilities,” Harden said.

Other times, such as when Russell Westbrook threw away a pass trying to get the ball to Harden to ignite a fast break as the New York Knicks were taking control, it appeared it might take a while before that happens.

Harden scored 17 points Monday night in his first game of the season, but the Clippers fell too far behind with a rough start to the fourth quarter and the Knicks beat them 111-97.

Harden joined the Clippers last week after finally getting the trade he sought from the Philadelphia 76ers since the summer and jumped right into the starting lineup in his debut, taking the floor with Leonard, Westbrook and Paul George.

But the first four went to the bench for good after Harden’s bad pass led to a Knicks fast-break layup that made it 104-88 with 4:25 to play.

The Clippers were already aware that adding Harden might not pay immediate dividends. Players who have been All-Stars and even MVPs in the NBA will have to alter the way they have always played.

“So just because you acquire a guy like James Harden doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to win,” coach Tyronn Lue said before the game. “You’ve got to put the work in and you’ve got to be ready to sacrifice.”

Lue said he expected it would take him 10 games to understand how to use his new roster. Harden couldn’t put a number on how long he expected it would take.

“If I knew then I’d be a genius at that point,” Harden said. “Hopefully sooner than later.”

Harden was the last of the Clippers announced and was loudly booed by the crowd at Madison Square Garden. He played a little more than half of the first quarter and then came out, with Lue saying before the game that his new guard would play shorter stints than usual in his first NBA action of his 15th season.

Some of Harden’s best work came while playing without the other starters. The three-time NBA scoring champion didn’t even take a shot in the first quarter, then went 4 for 5 for nine points in the second while starting the period with reserves P.J. Tucker, Norman Powell, Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee.

Harden played 31 minutes and led the Clippers with six assists. He had a good third quarter, when he set up the fast-break layup by Leonard midway through the period and hit a long 3-pointer just before the end of it, and it was tied at 76 going to the fourth.

But the Knicks broke it open while Leonard, George and Westbrook were resting early in the fourth, then pulled away for good later in the period with all of them in the game.

Harden said he felt tired in the beginning, not having the benefit of a full training camp and preseason to build his conditioning. The 2018 MVP said he was basically relying on his instincts Monday and it would probably take him a few games to get used to the pace of NBA games again.

Once that happens, the Clippers should be a title contender if their four top players remain healthy, though Harden has been on teams before whose hopes were wrecked by untimely injuries. So they know all they can do is use the season to make sure they are as ready if possible.

“Just right not, just figuring it out each and every day and hopefully when the time comes we’ll turn that corner and jell,” Leonard said.

Credit: AP

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