James Harden’s vintage performance powers Nets past Clippers

James Harden looked like last season’s MVP candidate Harden. Like prime Houston Rockets Harden. 

That was bad news for the Clippers. And bodes well for Brooklyn, who cruised to a 124-108 laugher before 17,128 at Crypto.com Arena. 

The Nets couldn’t have gotten a better Christmas present than Harden looking like this. After a 15-day layoff — first due to rest, then stuck in the NBA’s health and safety protocols — Harden has been stellar since returning on Christmas Day. He backed up a 36-point triple-double against the Lakers with Monday’s encore. 

Harden manipulated the defense and mauled the Clippers, with 39 points and 15 assists. He got wherever he wanted on the floor, and took whatever he chose from a defense that was shorthanded and outclassed. 

While the Clippers were missing stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Brooklyn was without two-thirds of its Big 3 in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, both in health and safety protocols. But the difference is the Nets had Harden, who joined some august company with this elite performance. 

James Harden delivered a vintage performance in the Nets’ 124-108 win over the Clippers.

“It comes down to the will of the players. You can’t, every night, pump your team up: They’re human beings and they play 82 to 100 games a year,” Steve Nash said. “At the core of it you have to have players who’re willing to play hard and compete, and both teams have a number of those and are largely built on those. That’s why they’re able to survive the adversity that’s been thrown at both groups.” 

Harden became just the 10th player in league history with 20,000 points, 6,000 assists and 5,000 boards. The first nine read like a basketball Who’s Who in or bound for Springfield: Kobe Bryant, Clyde Drexler, John Havlicek, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Russell Westbrook. 

James Harden finished with 39 points and 15 assists.
James Harden finished with 39 points and 15 assists.

And Monday he and the Nets were merciless in punishing a Clippers team that was coming off a back-to-back, and reeling from the Christmas Day news of George’s torn elbow ligament.

Brooklyn shot a scalding 57 percent, with Patty Mills adding 18 points. 

Nic Claxton started and continued his strong play of late with 18 points on 8-9 shooting, while Blake Griffin came off the bench with 12 points and nine boards against his old Clippers team. 

The Nets actually trailed early 23-16, but reeled off 11 unanswered points for a four-point edge they never surrendered. 

Patty Mills drives to the basket during the Nets' 124-108 win over the Clippers.
Patty Mills drives to the basket during the Nets’ 124-108 win over the Clippers.

Brooklyn kept padding the lead, an 18-4 run making it 34-27 with 2:17 left in the first quarter. By then, Harden had already shredded the defense with his vision and impressive explosion getting to the front of the cup. It’s an encouraging sign. 

The Nets showed good energy on the defensive end, behind Claxton, DeAndre’ Bembry and Bruce Brown. 

Nic Claxton blocks Amir Coffey's shot during the Nets' 124-108 win over the Clippers.
Nic Claxton blocks Amir Coffey’s shot during the Nets’ 124-108 win over the Clippers.

Patty Mills dove on the floor for a loose ball, got it to Harden for a bounce pass to Bembry and fast-break dunk. The Nets were up 60-48 with 3:52 left in the half, and it just grew going into the break. 

Brooklyn took a 71-55 lead into the locker room, its biggest halftime lead on the road this season and highest-scoring half (first or second) of the campaign. 

The highlight reel was Mills going behind the back to Harden, who threw a perfect lob to Claxton for a 92-73 edge. It reached 100-78 on Griffin’s layup with 2:21 left in the third. 

The Clippers did try to rally in the fourth; but unlike the Christmas Day game against the Lakers, this time Brooklyn never let it get interesting. When the Nets saw the lead cut to 10, Harden hit a four-point play and stemmed the run.