It’s extremely unlikely that Clippers guards Luke Kennard and Terance Mann and center Isaiah Hartenstein will ever be dubbed The Big Three in the same way that, say, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen once were with the Celtics. After all, they aren’t even starters. But three games into this young NBA season, the L.A. trio is beginning to make a name for themselves nonetheless.
Against Portland Monday night, with the Clippers facing the prospect of going 0-3 for the first time since they lost 13 of their first 14 games in 2010-11, Kennard, Hartenstein and Mann came off the bench to combine for 45 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals en route to a 30-point blowout victory. As a group, the three shot an astounding 17-for-20, or 85%, from the field, with Hartenstein making all four of his attempts from a surprising array of angles. As Andrew Greif of The Los Angeles Times pointed out, with those three on the court the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 34 points over the last two games.
“We play really hard, we come in, try to bring energy and move the ball,” Hartenstein said after the game. “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.”
More Chemistry Than a Rom-Com
Kennard, 25, was the star of the show Monday, undoubtedly. He led all scorers with 23 points on 8-for-10 from the field and 6-for-7 from long distance. He even chipped in four rebounds and three assists, including a driving wraparound pass to Ivica Zubac for a dunk midway through the second quarter. Later in the quarter, Kennard used a wide sidestep to gain space in the corner and convert a four-point play.
Those plays—aggressive, proactive—exemplify the type of playmaking and shotmaking the Clippers would like to see from Kennard this season. And they are, at least in part, the early dividends of a concerted effort by head coach Ty Lue to nurture obvious second-unit chemistry, something that was kindled between Mann and Kennard last season and has since intensified with Hartenstein’s training camp deal in September.
“I think for us, it’s just the communication,” Kennard said about Mann and Hartenstein, following the Portland game. “Especially on practice days, we do get together and we work on each action that we know that we’re going to get…we kind of go through some sets that [Lue] wants us to run, based on our group that we have in, that second unit.”
In fact, the chemistry began even before camp. When, in mid-October, it was announced that Hartenstein, 23, had made the 15-man roster, Lue revealed that Kennard and others had raved to him about Hartenstein’s performance in unsupervised pickup games prior to camp.
“It started as soon as he got here. The first day,” Kennard said on Monday. “I remember we were just playing. I think we were playing a pickup game, and we were on the same team and we just kind of played out of him.”
“They understand their unit, how they play,” Lue said. “Move bodies, move the basketball.”
Already in the Groove
Natural rapport aside, Lue believes the second unit’s hot start—particularly when compared to L.A.’s starters, who, until a shutdown performance again Portland, had posted a ghastly 163.7 defensive rating—has something to with starting the season in top physical condition. It’s something Lue believes the starters are still catching up on.
It should come as no surprise that Kennard, Mann and Hartenstein were in good shape, given their individual stakes. After stints in Houston, Denver and briefly Cleveland, Hartenstein, looking for more of a role, turned down a guaranteed qualifying offer from the Cavs and became an unrestricted free agent. He worked out for teams all summer with the hopes of landing a better fit and it looks like he’s found it in L.A. Even so, his $1.7 million Clippers deal is non-guaranteed.
Mann, meanwhile, faced a summer of heightened expectations following a profile-raising postseason and news that Kawhi Leonard would spend much of the season rehabbing from offseason ACL surgery. Entering his third year, the Clippers believe the 25-year-old can reach another level in his ascent from second-round draft pick status, and the team’s investment was reinforced a few weeks ago when Mann signed a two-year, $22 million extension. Mann said that last season’s long-but-doomed playoff run was a motivator in his signing.
And while Kennard may be the most financially stable of the three, he is properly motivated just the same. Namely, proving himself to Clipper Nation. Signed in 2020 to a 4-year, $56 million preseason contract extension after four average years in Detroit and not a game in a Clippers jersey, Kennard had flashes in his lone season with L.A. but he suffered from hesitancy and shaky defense and saw sporadic minutes in a diminished role. He was often mentioned in trade rumors this summer, primarily as a way to get off his contract but also with an eye on his shooting prowess. Lue has publicly implored Kennard to shoot more, and it seems, at least early on, that Kennard is finally giving himself the green light.
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