James Harden sat in a chair with a microphone in his hand, a smile on his face and his mood even brighter when the question was asked about him making his debut with the Clippers against the New York Knicks on Monday night.
“Definitely,” Harden said. “Definitely, baby.”
And thus will begin the process of integrating Harden with new teammates Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the foursome taking the court together for the first time since Harden was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers last Monday night.
How many minutes Harden will play at Madison Square Garden is unknown.
“I mean, I don’t expect to go out there and play 40-something minutes,” Harden said, “but no restrictions.”
It’ll be up to Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and the medical staff to “gauge how he feels” after practice Sunday to decide how best to use Harden and what sort of minutes restriction he’ll have.
“It’ll probably be something,” Lue said. “I mean, we don’t want to just jump right into it and play him crazy minutes. So, we’ll just talk to the medical staff and just see what’s best.”
Harden and Westbrook, former teammates with Oklahoma City and Houston, are both point guards who are at their best with the ball in their hands.
Harden averaged an NBA-best 10.7 assists last season in Philadelphia, to go along with 21 points and 6.1 rebounds over 36.8 minutes per game.
Lue, one of the best coaches in the NBA at getting players to fit together, will be tasked with making it work with Harden and Westbrook in the backcourt.
Lue says he does have a plan.
“I think when they are both on the floor together at some point just having James more off the ball, running our wings and quicks and coming off pin-downs and things like that and let Russ go handle so he can engage his defender,” Lue said. “So, that’s what we talked about the last two or three days, just when they are on the floor together, just making sure James is off the ball and let Russ be more of the point guard.”
Harden talked about how all four players are “very, very good with the basketball,” and because they all are, it’ll take some sacrifices from each.
“So, luckily for me, these last few years I’ve been having to play off the ball a little bit more," Harden said. "So, just like I said, it’s game by game, step by step. And I think we’re building forward to be really good in the postseason. So, obviously there’s going to be some good times, some bad times in the NBA season, which I think every team goes through that. So, I think for us it’s just making sure we’re prepared when it’s time.”
At 34 and entering his 15th season, Harden acknowledged that playing with Leonard, George and Westbrook can make the game easier for him since he doesn’t have to carry a heavy load anymore.
He shot 44.1% from the field and 38.5% from three-point range last season playing alongside league most valuable player Joel Embiid in Philadelphia.
With the Clippers, Harden is playing with three other stars.
“I think on both ends of the court, to where it’s like all of us can score, all of us can facilitate and make each other better,” he said. “So, being the best version of myself and not worrying about anything else but winning the game, you know what I mean? Whether it’s not worrying about stats, not worrying about things that happen throughout the course of the game, that next-play-mentality and focusing on what I control and what I can really bring to the table. So, I’m looking forward to that experience.”
Harden talked to reporters on the rooftop of the Clippers’ hotel, his legs crossed at times, in socks and slippers, a few minutes before the team was scheduled to practice.
He has been watching “a lot of film” over the last few days to help get caught up.
He played in a five-on-five scrimmage Friday, but George, Leonard, Westbrook and center Ivica Zubac didn’t participate.
Harden last played in an NBA game on May 14, a playoff game in which the 76ers were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Physically, Harden said he’s “good” and ready to play.
“I’ve been working out a lot,” he said. “It’s just when you’re playing five-on-five competition, it’s a little bit different. So, I’ll get adjusted hopefully. It don’t take me that long. But I’ll get adjusted.”
Lue said the plan was for Terance Mann (ankle) to practice Sunday. Lue said Mann “participated in some things” during practice Friday, but is not “a full go yet.” Lue said Brandon Boston Jr. (quad injury) “won’t play on this trip” and will be get reevaluated.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.