James Harden is quietly pacing the LA Clippers to a potential series win

With Kawhi Leonard out due to injury, former NBA MVP James Harden has stepped up to help the LA Clippers even the series against the Dallas Mavericks. How far can he take them?
Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four
Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four / Tim Warner/GettyImages

At a time when optimism should exist following a huge Game 4 road victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the LA Clippers are instead staring down uncertainty. With Kawhi Leonard set to miss Game 5, his potential third absence of the series, the question is louder than ever of whether or not the 32-and-over core of Leonard, Paul George, and James Harden can ever realize its potential.

While only time will tell if Leonard will be able to return to help the Clippers pursue their first-ever NBA championship, Harden is quietly giving the two-time Finals MVP a chance to do so.

Through four games against the Mavericks, Harden is averaging 26.0 points, 7.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.0 steal, and 4.3 three-point field goals made per game. He’s doing so with remarkable efficiency, shooting .541/.500/.913 during those consistently competitive outings.

It’s been all but impossible to match the individual production of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, but Harden has taken the lead in pacing the Clippers through this series.

Doncic and Irving are currently averaging a combined 57.8 points and 13.0 assists per game. With this in mind, a Leonard-less Clippers team should be trailing in this series. Instead, a selfless Harden has helped the Clippers withstand the offensive onslaught.

If the Clippers somehow find a way to advance, this would be an undeniable feather in the cap of a player who is already one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.

Stepping up when the team needs him most

In LA’s Game 1 victory at home, it was Harden who led the Clippers with team-highs of 28 points, eight assists, two blocks, and six three-point field goals made—while committing just one turnover. In Game 4, in Dallas and down 2-1 with Leonard on the sideline, Harden stepped up once more.

With George going off for 33 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals, and one block, Harden was happy to play Robin. He finished with a matching 33 points, as well as seven dimes, six boards, one block, and a steal. He also committed just two turnovers in a narrowly secured 116-111 Clippers victory.

Long criticized for his inefficiency and inability to take care of the ball, Harden is shooting the lights out and has committed more than two turnovers just once in this series.

This isn’t to say that Harden’s reputation has been changed by a first-round series, but credit is due to his phenomenal play thus far. While he’s long been recognized as one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, he’s also a certified future Hall of Famer.

Furthermore, his reputation as a postseason choke artist is at least slightly overblown compared to what he’s actually managed to accomplish.

Harden stepping up in the Playoffs isn’t as surprising as one might think

It may seem like ancient history at this point, but fans should never forget that Harden played a vital role in helping the Oklahoma City Thunder reach the NBA Finals in 2012. He was something of a bridge between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, often running the offense in a manner that allowed their contrasting styles to thrive against the highest level of opposition.

That includes the 29 points that Harden scored to help close-out the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, and the epic Game 5 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, during which he, Durant, and Westbrook all finished with 20-plus to give the Thunder the 3-2 series lead.

Harden would go on to lead the Houston Rockets to two Western Conference Finals appearances—the franchise’s only two trips to the NBA Playoffs’ semifinal round since 1997. That includes 2017-18, when he helped push the Stephen Curry and Durant led Golden State Warriors to seven games.

He’s also reached the Playoffs in all 15 seasons of his NBA career, averaging upwards of 31.4 minutes per game in all but two of those campaigns—his first two years in the league.

A league MVP, Sixth Man of the Year, and six-time top-five vote-getter in MVP voting, Harden has a résumé that holds up against almost anyone under the elusive NBA Champion line. That’s a big reason why the Clippers were willing to take a chance on him at 34 years of age.

In 2023-24, Harden has thus far proven to be everything that the Clippers were hoping he would be.

Leading by example—by taking a step back

Harden appeared in 72 games during the regular season, further building upon his ironman reputation. Of equal importance is the fact that he sacrificed scoring for facilitating, thus allowing Leonard and George to take center stage, and for the likes of Norman Powell and Ivica Zubac to find a consistent place in the team’s structure.

Based on how explosive he’s been from a scoring perspective this postseason, it’s becoming all the more evident that this has, in fact, been a part of a deliberate sacrifice on Harden’s part.

Harden finished the 2023-24 regular season averaging 16.6 points per game, his lowest mark since 2010-11—his second year in the league. His 11.4 field goal attempts per game, meanwhile, were his fewest since 2011-12, when he started just two games and won Sixth Man of the Year.

Despite starting 72 games in 2023-24, this has actually been rather reminiscent of that storied OKC campaign.

Harden is stepping up as a scorer when the moment calls for it, but it’s his unselfishness that has taken center stage. From a production perspective, Harden’s 8.5 assists per game were 4.0 more than any other Clippers player in 2023-24.

That mark of 8.5 assists per game was also the highest average by an LA player since Chris Paul put up 9.2 dimes per contest in 2016-17.

Even still, the 8.5 assists per game equate to 8.9 assists per 36 minutes, which sits 1.5 below the 10.4 he averaged just one season ago. That’s a statistical indication of how willing he’s been to control less of the offense in order to enable his teammates to create more for themselves and thus keep the ball moving.

As this postseason has shown, however, Harden is still as willing as ever to take over when the need arises. With Leonard unable to play, that need has certainly arisen.

If Harden and George are able to lead the Clippers past the Mavericks without a healthy Leonard, both of their Hall of Fame legacies would undoubtedly improve.

Can James Harden lead the LA Clippers past the Dallas Mavericks? Or do the franchise's hopes hinge on Kawhi Leonard? Make your thoughts heard and join the Clipperholics team today by submitting a proposal at openings.fansided.com!