Clippers get Marcus Morris back and at his best, but also James Harden’s best in loss

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden strains to get past Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. in the first half at Crypto.com Arena Monday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Much of the preseason discussion surrounding the Clippers centered on the return of so-called Indiana Paul — the version of Paul George who thrived as the undisputed No.1 option while playing with the Pacers to begin his career — and how the experience could inform how he might play under similar circumstances, with Kawhi Leonard recovering from injury.

With a torn elbow ligament knocking George out of the lineup for at least three weeks, the conversation needs reframing after Monday night’s 124-108 loss to Brooklyn: How likely is a return of New York Marcus?

Marcus Morris Sr. spent only half a season with the Knicks in 2019-20, but the veteran was at his most prolific playing the role of their go-to scorer: a career-high 19.6 points and 4.6 free-throw attempts to go with 43.9% three-point shooting.

The Clippers (17-17) envision using this time without George as a testing ground for young players who otherwise would have difficulty finding playing time — opportunities they hope will develop such players into solid rotation pieces in coming seasons, as bona fide championship pursuits resume. But the Clippers also want to win now, and without their leading scorer, points are a precious commodity.

“We got to find ways to pick up this scoring and win these games,” guard Eric Bledsoe said.

Enter Morris, who returned to Crypto.com Arena on Monday after missing four games because of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and stepped immediately into a top-scorer responsibility.

In 27 minutes, Morris finished with the kind of shooting night that would stand out at any point of the schedule, let alone after missing several games. In fact, he had been on the court for conditioning work for only a couple of days since being cleared to return. He scored 24 points with six assists and five rebounds. He made six of 13 shots, four of seven three-pointers, and all eight free throws — drilling spot-up three-pointers as well as his baseline fadeaway staple.

Coach Tyronn Lue criticized himself for playing Morris too many first-half minutes and seeing Morris tire, but praised his “great burst of energy” to open the second half.

“Being in the league 11 years with the credentials he has, guys listen to him,” Lue said. “It’s good to have him back. He’s one of our better scorers on our team. He’s one of our leaders.”

But it was the player Morris hugged before tipoff who dictated the pace of play and made Brooklyn (23-9) appear unstoppable against the team holding the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating — even as the Nets were without Kevin Durant and numerous other contributors because of the protocols. James Harden, who so rarely has looked like himself this season while shooting a career low from the field, looked like Houston Harden again — 39 points to tie a season high with 15 assists that led to 33 additional points and eight rebounds.

In the final minute of the second quarter, Morris shook his head, clearly annoyed, after missing a second consecutive shot and seeing Harden unaccounted for and leaking out for an easy transition layup. It capped a first half in which Harden scored 22 points and dished eight assists for 17 additional points to pull the Nets out of an eight-point deficit before leading 71-55 at halftime.

Bledsoe added 15 points and Luke Kennard 10 for the Clippers. Xavier Moon, making his NBA debut amid a lineup of reserves, made his first field goal. Keon Johnson registered the first two three-pointers of his career.

Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton shoots over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr.

Brooklyn Nets forward Nic Claxton shoots over Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. in the first half at Crypto.com Arena Monday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Morris made his first two three-pointers of the second half, but they cut the deficit to just 13 each time because the Clippers’ defense was repeatedly sliced open behind a scheme that sought to pressure Harden beyond the perimeter, but in so doing left reams of open space in the middle of the court where Nets teammates like DeAndre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown caught pocket passes behind the first line of Clippers defenders and found open shooters.

And this was without leading scorer Durant, whom the Nets expect to be cleared from health and safety protocols in time for the Clippers’ Saturday visit to Brooklyn. The Clippers have been without their defensive coordinator, Dan Craig, since Dec.13 because of knee surgery. With so much uncertainty around who is and is not available from night to night, Lue has asked his team to focus on what it can control — namely, the defensive principles that so often have helped their short-handed roster.

“I’m pretty happy,” Lue said before tipoff. “I think we got to get better just with our communication. Guys don’t talk a lot. We’re quiet on the court.”

But of the Nets’ 124 points, 74 came in the paint, where Brooklyn shot 71%.

Toward the end of the third quarter, Morris checked out for a final time and talked with Lue at the scorer’s table. His shorter-than-usual night was over. A long month, or more, for the Clippers without George could be just beginning.

Etc.

Six days after signing a 10-day contract using the hardship exception, center Moses Wright entered the protocols Monday. Wright joins guards Reggie Jackson and Jay Scrubb in the protocols.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.