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Montrezl Harrell reemerges at right time for the Clippers

Clippers' Montrezl Harrell shoots over Dallas Mavericks' Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell shoots over Dallas Mavericks’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist during the second half on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The fifth game of a tied playoff series is not the time a team wants to discover its identity, but that’s the position the Clippers were in before Tuesday’s game with Dallas. It’s why they took the court with an aura of seriousness, the clapping from the team’s staffers barely breaking through the thumping music as the team ran onto an empty court.

They split into two lines, one on the right and one on the left, and went through their first set of layup drills. And as Montezl Harrell, a player in search of something as much as anyone on the roster, ran to the basket for his first round of rebounding, his warmup pants promptly fell to the ground.

For anyone else, this would’ve been a bad omen. But for Harrell, one of the Clippers’ star subs, it was a premonition. Tuesday in the Clippers’ 154-111 victory, Harrell would recapture the freedom and confidence that has made him one of the best bench players in the league, shedding the rust, the uncertainty and the inconsistency that’s made him largely unplayable in the series’ four prior games.

Like those pants, in a blink, all that old stuff was off.

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Harrell finished with 19 points — most of which had no impact on the outcome of the game. When Harrell slammed home a two-handed dunk and howled at the Clippers’ crowd — which consisted of vice president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and a few of the team’s training staff (all sitting at approved social distance) — the game was out of hand. When the shot clock ticked down and the Dallas bench screamed for Harrell to shoot the three and he did, making his first one of the season, it didn’t swing momentum or anything. And when Harrell slid in and took a charge, stretching his body out underneath the Mavericks’ basket, it meant nothing. His team was already up 40.

No, Harrell’s most impactful five minutes bridged the end of the first quarter with the start of the second. He scored three points and grabbed three rebounds — hardly numbers that you would celebrate.

But as Harrell walked off the court after the short burst, Clippers coach Doc Rivers greeted him like he had just made 10 straight.

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“I told him I was proud of him,” Rivers said, “because I think he had [three points], but he made a difference.”

In the postseason, that’s all you need from supporting players like Harrell — positive impact while they’re on the court while stars like Kawhi Leonard, and finally, Paul George carve up defenses too young, too small and too slow to stop them.

It’s what Harrell should’ve been doing from the start of the series. But expecting that to happen? That’s probably unfair.

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Harrell missed the entirety of the Clippers’ seeding-game schedule as he sat vigil before the death of his grandmother. He returned from quarantine just in time to play in the Clippers’ most meaningful games of the year. And as he tried to find his legs, he lost his head.

“I had to get my mind right,” Harrell said.

Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo claimed his first piece of hardware this season, winning the league’s defensive player of the year award.

There were new plays to learn, a detailed game plan to implement and no time. At the same time there was grief — so much of it — and isolation. Following the first four games, the blown defensive assignments and the heavy legs, Harrell went back to his room with his disappointment as his only company.

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It was hard.

But a renewed focus on the little things — the big screen that sprung Paul George for a bucket, the perfectly executed defensive rotation and the hustle for the loose ball — forced energy onto the Clippers at a time when they desperately needed it.

“I was trying to get back to the normal feeling,” Harrell said.

He found it, rediscovering the things that really matter just in time for games to matter more than they ever have.


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