As James Harden’s three-pointer ripped through the net, Montrezl Harrell crumpled.
The Clippers forward had done everything asked of him in 24 minutes Sunday at Staples Center, shaking off a slow start with a season-high 17 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
Harrell’s steal and layup in the final seconds of the third quarter sent the Clippers into the final period leading by nine. His dunk after an offensive rebound with 3:39 remaining in the game, punctuated by a scream, extended that lead to 10.
But fouling Harden on his made three-pointer with 29.5 seconds left allowed the Rockets to cut the Clippers’ lead to three, and Harrell crouched on the court with his hands holding his dreadlocks and his head between his knees.
Chased by the defense of Danilo Gallinari in the final seconds, Harden stepped on the three-point line with his right foot and missed, sealing the Clippers’ 115-112 victory.
“I tried to run him off the three-point line, but when I didn’t I came out back and fouled the guy,” Harrell said. “We came up with some big stops when we needed them.”
They also had timely offense.
The Clippers (2-1) shot 58.3% during a 39-point third quarter that propelled them to a win in their last game of a three-game homestand to open the season. Tobias Harris scored a team-high 23 points, Gallinari added 20 and five Clippers scored in double figures in an effort that was enough to hold off a Rockets team missing All-Star point guard Chris Paul, as he began a two-game suspension for his role in a fight Saturday against the Lakers.
His absence changed the game but to Harrell it didn’t dim the quality of the win over a Houston team that led the Western Conference in wins last season. The Rockets still made 15 three-pointers, 10 more than the Clippers, and rallied in the final minutes less than 24 hours after playing an emotional first game in Los Angeles.
“You’ve got to come out ready to play. It’s early in the year, it’s unfortunate what happened but hey, we’re back to the NBA. Simple as that.”
Harden scored 31 points on 26 shots. Rather than stick one defender on Harden for long stretches, coach Doc Rivers sent waves of defenders at the league’s reigning most valuable player in hopes of limiting his efficiency and the calculation worked. In the final minutes Gallinari, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all took turns.
“It was difficult, definitely,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who produced another controlled performance with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes. “He can really do everything on the court so you just have to try to make it as difficult as possible for him.”
Though the crowd of 16,149 cried foul whenever Harden pleaded with officials for foul calls, he finished with only six free throws and his team 15.
The Clippers made all 26 of their free throws, a team record for the most without a miss in a single game.
In his first two games this season Harrell made only two of his nine field-goal attempts and turned the ball over four times. Two days later, facing a Houston team that included him in a 2017 trade to get Paul, his play was the difference — ultimately for the better.
“Trez played hard, Trez played well,” Williams said. “I’m sure he had a little added incentive playing against Houston but he goes out there and he play like that every night. Smashmouth basketball. Tonight was no different.”