The Clippers' winning ways began with a change of mindset

The Clippers’ rebound from being one of the NBA’s most-maligned teams in November to one of its most dangerous two months later can be explained by any number of ways, supported both by reams of new-school statistics and the old-fashioned eye test.

What has mattered most to some of their players is neither.

“I think the most encouraging thing is our mentality,” said reserve wing Terance Mann, who has plenty of experience to draw against as the roster’s second-longest tenured player, before a recent practice. “We go into every game really feeling like we’re going to win. And I feel like that’s the best thing for us.

“We maybe had lost that for a little while, losing six in a row, but now, it’s every game, we feel like we’re going to win. You feel it in the locker room, you feel it on the plane going to wherever we’re going.”

Two days after that practice, the Clippers trailed by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter before outscoring Brooklyn 22-0 in the last 5:33 of a victory that improved them to 27-14 — as effective an illustration as any of their newfound mindset, and where the Clippers find themselves at the season’s midway point.

In the team’s four previous seasons since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the franchise to boost their championship ambitions, constant injuries to their stars and the resulting lack of continuity made the Clippers difficult to believe in as a true championship contender.

The difference is that halfway through this regular season, the Clippers say they believe in themselves. After a dominating road win at New Orleans earlier this month, coach Tyronn Lue said this roster was playing with more confidence than any since he took over before the 2020-21 season.

Harden has been “a huge part of it,” Mann said, “just him coming in here with all that confidence and making sure everyone feels like we’re going to win.”

And win they have. Since altering their lineup Nov. 17, the Clippers are 24-7, tied with Boston for the league’s best record in that span. Since Dec. 1, the start of a nine-game winning streak that remains tied for the longest this season, they hold the league’s best winning percentage.

The Clippers rank fifth in offensive rating (119.6 points per 100 possessions), 14th in defensive rating (113.9) and fourth in net rating (5.6). Since breaking their six-game losing streak Nov. 17, they rank third with an offensive rating of 121.7, 13th with a defensive rating of 114.6 and fifth in net rating (6.0). In an even smaller sample size, since the beginning of their nine-game winning streak on Dec. 1, they have the league’s top offense.

Talk with the Clippers about their strong start and the tone can take on a baseball dugout protecting against the jinx of a no-hitter. Though their 25.8 assists per game is the highest of any Lue-coached Clippers team — what sixth man of the year candidate Norman Powell called the “superstar effect,” turning defenses’ attention on Harden, Leonard and George into open shots for others — Lue wants faster decisions when defenses send double teams. Though they held Brooklyn scoreless for nearly six minutes Sunday, they face the enormous task of playing for at least the next three weeks without injured starting center Ivica Zubac, their defensive anchor.

Though “we made our big trade” in October, as president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said, the Clippers are annually one of the league’s most active teams at the trade deadline and are not expected to stand by idly before the Feb. 8 cutoff, which would require another acclimation period with new faces. Are the Clippers comfortable with Amir Coffey remaining a prominent contributor at backup forward, or will they weigh other options by moving P.J. Tucker’s contract and one of their few remaining draft assets of value, a 2030 first-round pick, as the team is said to be interested in doing?

“The defensive habits are the things that are going to carry us through,” Frank said, indicating one area the Clippers feel a need to improve. “Because we play different lineups, the ability to rebound is going to be critical.”

Yet amid all of the talk of being a work in progress, the Clippers have largely found the rotations they like — a stark contrast to past seasons, when Lue’s mixing and matching of lineups often carried on until the season’s end. Scoring 22 unanswered points to close out Sunday’s win against Brooklyn, all while using the type of small-ball lineup Lue has tried to avoid for much of the last two months, was “definitely one of those encouraging moments,” Harden said, an example of their capability to adapt and win.

“Things happen throughout the course of the year and the team that can pick up on that and find ways to win no matter what, you give yourself a chance to be the last team standing,” Harden said.

The Clippers have made a credible case to be one of those teams because their players have found new ways to play since Harden’s arrival. Harden’s 11.1 shot attempts per game is his lowest average since 2011-12, his third season, and his usage rate is his lowest since his second season, but he has led the Clippers in assists 27 times — more than all of his teammates combined — and gradually has become more comfortable taking catch-and-shoot three-pointers when off the ball, attempting 2.2 per game and shooting 38.5%.

Upon his arrival, Harden complained about feeling as though he couldn’t control the offense in Philadelphia; Lue has made his comfort a top priority.

“What he’s brought to us is just keeping everybody happy,” Lue said. “Being able to run pick and roll and get 10, 11 assists, get guys easy shots and easy baskets and that’s what’s allowed us to be really good.

After spending the first weeks of November unsure how to best contribute, George has settled into a largely off-the-ball role offensively. It is no small sacrifice for a player who was challenged in Lue’s first season to be a better creator for teammates, and admittedly finds his offensive rhythm when the ball in his hands. Yet George has thrived by making 45% of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, and nearly 60% of George’s made baskets this season have been assisted — which would be the highest rate of his career over a full season.

Powell has gone through a similar transition , oftenplaying in the closing lineup alongside wings Harden, Leonard and George. Powell said he has accepted that his scoring will come off of catch-and-shoot opportunities or drives past closing-out defenders when set up by other ballhandlers. He is shooting 48.9% on catch-and-shoot threes.

Leonard and George now run fewer pick-and-roll plays because of Harden’s dynamism running the set. But while Leonard’s usage rate is his lowest as a Clipper, he is among the league’s most efficient scorers.

Where last season was often joyless, and led to a doom-and-gloom offseason when the team’s direction and commitment to the core of Leonard and George was often questioned by rival teams, Leonard has signed a three-year extension, and Harden and George, who could both be free agents next summer, have professed their desire to return as part of the team’s long-term core.

This season’s first half has looked much like Sunday’s 41st game, when Mann played a key role in igniting a first-quarter comeback when trailing 16-0, but was “up cheering, jumping around,” even when not on the court in the fourth quarter, when Lue played Powell instead.

“It’s all about sacrifice, and if we sacrifice, like I said, we got a lot of different ways that we can win and beat you,” Lue said. “PG and Kawhi didn’t have it going [vs. Brooklyn], so James had it going, Russ had it going, and they was willing and OK to play through those guys. It wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t any facial expressions — it wasn’t like, ‘Get me the ball.’

“We just stayed the course. And so 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.”

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