Clippers’ productive bench trio meshed in preseason workouts
One week into the NBA season, one of the league’s most effective lineup combinations involves a center who wasn’t guaranteed to make the roster out of training camp, a wing who was a second-round pick with jump-shot issues two seasons ago, and a guard who has needed to be coaxed by his teammates and coaches to do more of what he does best.
Two things about the Clippers’ bench unit revolving around center Isaiah Hartenstein, wing Terance Mann and guard Luke Kennard can be true at the same time. Their status as the league’s third-best three-man lineup combination, as gauged by plus/minus rating, is the product of a mere 27 minutes together and likely unsustainable.
The Clippers outscored Memphis and Portland by 34 points combined in the spans that Hartenstein, Mann and Kennard shared the court.
Yet there is also optimism their chemistry and complementary styles could continue to yield stops on one end and points on the other, and it stems from a larger sample size that began in September during preseason pickup games hosted at the Clippers’ practice facility. By arriving in strong shape — coach Tyronn Lue said Monday that his reserves’ conditioning still remains ahead of his starters — they had a head start on “playing with a purpose,” Lue said.
It wasn’t hard to identify why each felt they had something to prove.
For Mann, it was that last season’s breakout playoff performances weren’t an exception. Kennard needed to live up to his four-year contract, worth $56 million guaranteed, which kicked in this season. Sensing little opportunity on a crowded Cleveland depth chart, Hartenstein turned down a guaranteed salary with the Cavaliers in July, intent on proving he was capable of rotation-quality minutes at center, even while knowing it would require him to win a job during training camp with the Clippers.
As well as Hartenstein has played, he wasn’t used in the season opener because of matchup problems and there is no guarantee he’ll continue to be part of a trio that forms the backbone of the Clippers’ bench once center Serge Ibaka (back) is cleared to return. Yet Hartenstein has given every reason to keep him on the court, even drawing a charge when Portland’s Damian Lillard attempted to dunk over him Monday at Staples Center.
Paul George led the Clippers’ smothering defensive effort against the Trail Blazers, brushing off cold shooting to seal the team’s first win.
“They understand their unit, how they play,” Lue said. “Move bodies, move the basketball.”
“I think for us, it’s just the communication,” Kennard said. “Especially on practice days, we do get together and we work on each action that we know that we’re going to get, and coach [Lue], we kind of go through some sets that he wants us to run, based on our like group that we have in, that second unit.”
The addition of a willing and confident passer such as Hartenstein, who has already thrown enough high-degree-of-difficulty bounce-passes on backdoor cuts to cut into a highlight tape, met Kennard and Mann at an ideal time of their career evolutions. Mann’s offensive skill set has broadened since his rookie season. In the Clippers’ 116-86 win Monday against Portland, Mann created space with a step-back dribble, then stepped behind the three-point arc and, pausing a beat as if to emphasize how much time he had to shoot, drilled a three-pointer. Teammates jumped up; Kawhi Leonard, still seated, raised both hands.
One year after being traded by Detroit while coming off significant knee injuries, and spending his first season in Los Angeles cajoled by coaches and teammates to shoot, Kennard is finally comfortable with his perpetual green light. He made six of seven three-point attempts Monday.
“We play really hard, we come in, try to bring energy and move the ball,” Hartenstein said. “It’s not really stagnant. We push the pace, communicate and I think that’s been the biggest thing for us so far is even in practice even from starting before preseason we were all just talking. I think we all know how to play the game and we just try to win and play winning basketball.”
Of Hartenstein’s 16 assists during the preseason and regular season, 11 have gone to either Mann or Kennard. In what was initially a joke but has become closer to truth, Lue said that the only teammate the center passes to is Kennard.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before a couple times,” said Hartenstein, who said that Kennard was simply open. “I try not to sometimes, but it’s kind of hard.”
They even play off one another away from the court. When Kennard apologized during a postgame interview Monday for not converting a layup that would have given Hartenstein yet another assist, he glanced a few feet to his left where the center was waiting for his turn at the interview dais.
“Slowest layup I’ve seen in my life,” Hartenstein said, with a smile.
The Clippers rout the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-86
When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330.
Update: The Cavaliers (2-2) have won two in a row against Atlanta and Denver, and a different player has led them in scoring in each game thus far, with Kevin Love scoring 22 against the Nuggets on Monday. They are already seeing the promise of Evan Mobley, the former USC center selected third in July’s draft. Among rookies, as of Tuesday, the 6-foot-11 center’s 2.0 blocks per game ranked first, his 8.3 rebounds ranked second, his 14.3 points per game ranked fourth and his 55% shooting ranked sixth. His only blemish is turnovers, with 2.0 per game.
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