30 Apr

James Harden’s masterful clutch performance saves L.A. from historic collapse

We’ve all heard it. James Harden has heard it. Even James Harden’s mother has heard it. And, when delivered properly, the criticism is largely justified.

Harden’s repeated disappearing acts in playoff games with the highest stakes has marred his otherwise legendary statistical career. He’s had great postseason performances, to be sure, but in elimination and closeout games, he doesn’t have the track record that his talent and regular-season production would suggest.

One game isn’t going to change that, but Harden did his best to shift the narrative in the fourth quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ 116-111 Game 4 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, scoring clutch bucket after clutch bucket to save his team from the embarrassment of losing a game in which they led by 31 points — no NBA team has ever lost by blowing a bigger lead in the playoffs.

In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance and the momentum tilting toward the home Mavericks, Harden delivered 13 crucial points to even the series at 2-2 heading back to Los Angeles. He finished with 33 points, seven assists and six rebounds on 12-for-17 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range.

In a game which Kawhi Leonard missed due to knee inflammation, Paul George was absolutely brilliant with 26 first-half points, and his fadeaway 3-pointer from the corner with just under two minutes left was perhaps the most impressive display in a matchup riddled with brilliant individual shot-making.


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— NBA (@NBA) April 28, 2024
But when it came down to clutch execution, it was Harden — not George — whom the Clippers trusted to carry them home. The man known as “The Beard” found a hole in the Mavericks’ defense and did what he’s done for the majority of his career: exploit it until they prove they can stop it.

And they couldn’t.

Harden continually got past his initial defender and hit five feathery floaters before the big man could step up to contest his shot. It was almost like watching a GIF on loop, as the future Hall of Famer did the same thing over … and over … and over … to tear away Dallas’ hope for completing the epic comeback.

This was straight-up vintage Harden — getting his defender on his hip, putting him in jail with hostage dribbles, then forcing the big to choose between a floater and a lob for a dunk. More times than not, the big will live with giving up the floater, because it’s an incredibly difficult shot — especially in the final minutes of a crucial playoff game. But Harden, who played 40 minutes on Sunday, made it look easy.

Needless to say, the Clippers had to get this win. They did not want to go back to L.A. down 3-1 with Leonard’s status in jeopardy for the remainder of the series, even though they’ve won both games against Dallas without their best player. Harden has put up strong postseason performances before, but his confidence and dominance in the clutch on Sunday must reassure the Clippers and their fans moving forward.

After his most recent postseason no-show with the Philadelphia 76ers, Harden excused his lackluster clutch play by saying, “we ran our offense, the ball just didn’t get back to me.” Well, on Sunday, whether by design from head coach Ty Lue or just confidence from teammates, Harden WAS the offense, hearkening back to Harden’s brash proclamation before he even played a single game for the Clippers: “I’m not a system player — I am a system.”

At least for Sunday’s Game 4 win, Harden spoke it into existence. We’ll see how long “the system” can keep functioning at this level as the series gets longer and the pressure continues to build.

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