Hernández: James Harden delivers a trademark disappearing act at the worst time for the Clippers


James Harden produced one of his trademark playoff performances on Wednesday night.

Actually, that’s not true.

This was worse.

In the Clippers’ 123-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of their first-round series, the longtime postseason underachiever delivered a Harden Special for the ages, making only two of 12 shots and scoring seven points.

Clippers shooting guard James Harden dribbles under pressure from the Dallas Mavericks' Tim Hardaway Jr.

Clippers shooting guard James Harden, right, dribbles under pressure from the Dallas Mavericks’ Tim Hardaway Jr. Wednesday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Seven.

You read that right.

Seven.

Seven, as in the number of days in a week.

Seven, as in half the number of points Mavericks reserve Jaden Hardy scored in six minutes of garbage time.

As a result, the Clippers are now behind in the best-of-seven series, 3-2, and one loss away from this season ending like every single one before it: Without a championship.

To what did coach Tyronn Lue attribute Harden’s latest gutterball in the playoff bowling alley?

“Being human,” Lue said.

Except players who earn $35.6 million a year, as Harden did this season, can’t be this human. They can’t be held to two points in the second half of the most important game of the season, as Harden was on Wednesday. They can’t make one of seven threes.

Just as Harden shrank from the moment on the court, he shrank from his responsibility of explaining what happened to the fans who have invested time and money following the Clippers.

As Harden walked down the hallway leading from the locker room to the players’ parking lot, he was approached by Times reporter Broderick Turner, who asked him if he would stop by the interview room.

Harden mouthed, “No,” and continued on his way out.

The game was reminiscent of how Harden ended last season, which he played with the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden had two 40-point games in the first five games of a second-round series against the Boston Celtics, after which the 76ers led three games to two. However, Harden scored 13 points in Game 6 and nine points in Game 7, and the 76ers dropped both games.

His face plant on Wednesday came at a time when he was drawing widespread praise for his play in this series against the Mavericks, especially amid Kawhi Leonard’s absence. Harden scored 33 points in a Game 4 victory that leveled the series.

Stories were published about how Harden could alter his playoff legacy. Who said the media is negative?

To be fair to Harden, he wasn’t the only Clipper who stunk.

Playoff P resurfaced, as Paul George scored 15 points on just four-of-13 shooting. Russell Westbrook registered six points on two-of-11 shooting, including 0-for-3 from three.

How bad were the Clippers?

Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and P.J. Washington of the Mavericks were a combined 0 for 15 from behind the arc late in the third quarter — and the Clippers were down by 22 points.

They made only one of their first 12 shots in the second half. The Clippers missed 16 consecutive threes at one point.

Harden’s only points after halftime came on a couple of third-quarter free throws.

“He’s allowed to have a bad game,” Lue said. “He didn’t shoot the ball well. They get up and pressure him a little bit, which we didn’t handle like we have in our first four games. He can play bad. It’s possible. He didn’t play well. I gotta do a better job of getting him better situations and then get ready for Game 6 because I know he’ll be better.”

George also predicted Harden would bounce back, but, then again, what else could he say?

Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II tips a rebound away from Clippers guard Norman Powell

Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II (2) tips a rebound away from Clippers guard Norman Powell (24) during Game 5 Wednesday at Crypto.Com Arena.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“He’ll be better,” George said. “He’s got every tool in his tool set to get some and create and score the ball.”

Even with Leonard absent, the Clippers are in better position than they were when they were about to be eliminated in each of the past three years.

Last year, they didn’t have Leonard or George when they were knocked out by the Phoenix Suns in the first round. The year before that, they were also missing their two superstars when they were beaten by the New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in tournament. Three years ago, they played the Western Conference finals without Leonard and were eliminated by the Suns.

This time around, the Clippers have two superstars in Harden and George. They can win this series, but their superstars will have to play like superstars. That starts with Harden.



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