Clippers' James Harden has played his best with Kawhi Leonard sidelined

The score was tied 98-98 late in the fourth quarter Sunday, the Clippers’ once seemingly insurmountable 31-point lead over the Dallas Mavericks gone, when James Harden passed the ball to Terance Mann for a three-pointer that he missed.

As the Clippers retreated on defense, coach Tyronn Lue yelled at Harden above the deafening roar inside American Airlines Center.

“Shoot the floater. Shoot the floater,” Lue hollered to Harden.

The message was clear to Harden that he’s one of the Clippers’ main stars, and that with Kawhi Leonard out for Game 4 of the first-round Western Conference playoff series Sunday because of right knee inflammation that Harden must carry more of the burden if they were going to win.

Point made.

“After that, he made five straight floaters,” Lue said Tuesday before the Clippers’ practice ahead of Game 5 on Wednesday night at Arena. “I mean, it was open the first time. He said, ‘Facts! Fact!’ or whatever that means. Then he came and made five in a row. But it was there. It’s there.”

Harden has been a difference-maker for the Clippers in their two wins in the best-of-seven series that’s tied at 2-2.

He has facilitated and attacked the Mavericks. He has been unafraid to be aggressive despite the other weapons the Clippers have, and he has been willing to be a leader.

Harden has been at his best when Leonard has been sidelined. The Clippers said Wednesday that Leonard will be out again, so L.A. will turn to Harden again.

In the two wins without Leonard, Harden averaged 30.2 points, 7.5 assists and four rebounds. He shot 58.8% from the field, 62.5% from three-point range and 100% from the free-throw line.

In the two losses, in Games 2 and 3 when Leonard played, Harden averaged 21.5 points, 6.5 assists, four rebounds while shooting 48.1% from the field and 38.9% from three-point range.

”Yeah, it is amazing what he’s doing. It’s amazing what James is doing,” Mann said. “His role isn’t easy, especially coming in late to a team. … The core of us have been together for years now and just for him to come in and gel and figure it out on the fly. Guys in and out, he’s changing his type of play every night. I think it’s amazing what he’s doing. So shout-out to him.”

More so, Harden is playing heavy minutes for the Clippers and still is productive. He ranks ninth in the 2024 NBA playoffs in minutes per game, averaging 41.3.

Lue laughed when asked if the Clippers really need Harden to be on the court so much for them to have a chance at winning,

“Yeah. Yeah, we do. He’s been good,” Lue said. “So, I’ve just been talking to him, just trying to get him rest when we can. But it’s the playoffs. So, he wants to be on the floor, we need him on the floor and he’s a huge part of our success. So, we got to have him on the floor as much as possible. But when we can get him breaks, we got to get him breaks as well.”

Harden is in the final year of a deal that pays him $35.6 million, making him an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has repeatedly said he wanted to remain with the Clippers.

The story goes that players can make their money in the playoffs.

Since Harden is averaging 26 points, 7.0 assists (seventh in the NBA) and a playoff career-best 54.1% from the field, including 50% from three-point range, he’s making his case for a payday.

“I’m blessed to be able to change it up and be a facilitator or a scorer,” Harden said after Game 4. “I’ve been doing it throughout the course of my career at an elite level, you know what I mean? So, my mindset coming to this team was doing whatever it takes to win and getting to the end goal. And whether that is scoring or facilitating, I think it goes by possession by possession and game by game.

“And I think during the course of the regular season, I had glimpses where I scored the basketball or had glimpses where I’ve had double-digit assists. So, to answer your question, Game 1, we knew Kawhi was out and I had to be more aggressive. [Sunday night], we knew Kawhi was out. I had to be more aggressive. And so it’s pretty simple for me.”

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